Clambakes, seafood boils, lobster rolls, oysters, all you can eat crab legs... nothing screams summer vacation like a seafood celebration. We wait eagerly all year long to gather at our favorite seaside shack to bask in the warm salty air and dig in to some expertly prepared seafood. This year, throwing on a bib and chowing down at a restaurant might not be an option with many restaurants still closed due to the pandemic. But it's as good a time as any to throw your own seafood feast at home, even if it’s just for you and your family. Even if it’s just for you.
There’s no particular rules when it comes to a seafood smorgasbord. You can do a variety of seafood options or just go all in on one with a few sides to bulk it up or even do a seafood boil and cook everything together. The best part is that the more casual you are, the more authentic the experience. Lots of paper towels or napkins, newspapers for the table, crusty bread or buns, and butter are the only accessories you need to make this meal restaurant worthy. Get extra points by adding in some fries—store-bought frozen fries served up in paper cups are easy and delightful.
How to Buy Seafood
First things first, if you want a great seafood feast, you can’t skimp on high-quality seafood. After all, the fresher the seafood, the less effort you need to put in, since you can let its natural flavor shine. Here are a few tips for buying the best seafood.
Know Your Fishmonger
Whether you’re going to a fish market or your local grocery store, build a rapport with people behind the counter. “I tell everybody, just have a fish guy,” says Gason Nelson, a New Orleans-based private chef. Ask them what’s fresh and get recommendations. Also, Nelson advises, watch how the vendor handles the seafood. Are they handling it with care? Are they letting you take a closer look? That can provide you with clues.
‘If it smells fishy, run!’” Wise words from Nelson. Any seafood you purchase should smell very mild or slightly briny. If it’s fishy or smells like ammonia, the seafood isn’t fresh. Crab and other shellfish should have a sweet, briny scent.
Give It a Look
Fish should have a robust color and shiny skin. Fish that’s dull-colored probably isn’t fresh. For shellfish like crab or lobster, says famed Institute of Culinary Education chef Seamus Mullen, “If you’re lucky enough to get them alive and fresh, you want to look for shellfish that look feisty and respond quickly. Have your vendor pick up the lobster, for instance, and the tails should flap aggressively. If they are slow and sluggish, chances are they’ve been out of the water a long time.” Oysters should be on ice and you should avoid any that have open shells. Note that for clams and mussels, the opposite is true—shells should be open and close quickly when you tap on them. Additionally, says Nelson, make sure to ask the vendor how long the oysters have been out. You can also ask to see the tag that has the oysters’ harvest date, which vendors are required by law to keep.
Fresh or Frozen?
Unless you live near the Gulf or South Atlantic coasts where shrimp are caught, you’re better off buying frozen shrimp. Often “fresh” shrimp you see was actually previously frozen and allowed to thaw and you don’t know how long it’s been sitting out. “Shrimp tend to break down quite quickly, but flash frozen shrimp (frozen on the boats) can be just as good fresh shrimp and often are a safer choice,” says Mullen.
If you don’t have a good go-to fishmonger, there are a plethora of online seafood purveyors that offer overnight shipping. But since you can’t see or smell the product, it’s important to do your homework, says Mullen. “Ask your vendor, whether it’s an online vendor or a fishmonger, where their product comes from, how often it’s restocked, when they received it, etc. I find that the best vendors are the most transparent.” Schedule your order to arrive no early than a day or two before your planned feast.
How Much Seafood Do You Buy Per Person?
How much you buy really depends on what you’re making, how many courses and sides you have, and how big the appetites are of the people feasting. As a rule of thumb, says Mullen, you’re looking at 6 to 8 ounces of cooked seafood per person, which translated to 1 to 2 pounds of crab or lobster per person. Clams and mussels are 1/2 to 1 pound per person and for oysters, plan for six per person. For crawfish, says Nelson, you’re looking at 5 pounds per person.
How to Store Seafood
According to the USDA, raw seafood should be stored in the fridge at 40 F or lower, for only one or two days before you either cook it or freeze it. Your best bet is to buy fresh seafood the day you plan to cook it, especially with items like oysters which you may be eating raw. While you’re prepping your seafood extravaganza, keep the oysters on ice or in the fridge with the large side of the shell face down. Clams should be stored in the fridge in a single layer with a damp cloth over them.
How to Thaw Frozen Seafood
For the optimum flavor and texture, thaw your seafood in the fridge, rather than leaving it on the kitchen counter. This takes a little forethought, particularly for frozen shellfish, Mullen advises that “the best way to thaw it is in the refrigerator over two days, but that can make the fridge a little smelly. If I’m doing the fridge method, I put the shellfish inside two large ziplock bags and I slip in a small bowl of baking soda to help absorb the odor.” If you don’t have the time to do that, you can run cold water over the seafood to thaw it out just before cooking.
How to Prep and Serve Crab Legs
Crab legs are super easy to prepare, since crab must be sold live or pre-cooked, so if you choose the latter, there’s not much cooking you have to do. “What I love to do is to steam them,” said Mullen. “I’ll add about an inch and a half of water to a large pot; then I add some seaweed (you can ask your fishmonger for seaweed or you can use dried kelp from an Asian market). I add a little salt, a splash of wine and I steam the legs for about 10 minutes and then serve them with aioli or garlic butter.” Whatever you do, don’t forget the butter! Melt some butter with garlic, and add salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice for a delicious dipping sauce.
How to Do a Seafood Boil
If you’re feeding a big family, you can’t go wrong with a seafood boil, which will take your tastebuds on a trip down south. Every region—and even every person—has their own way of doing a seafood boil, so you honestly can’t get this wrong. Just grab the biggest pot you can find, fill it halfway up with water (throw in some beer as well, if you’d like), season the water with Old Bay, Slap Ya Mama, or your own seasoning mix, then add your choice of ingredients—typically corn, potatoes, and sausage. Finally, add your favorite shellfish—shrimp, crab, mussels, whatever you prefer. Once cooked, strain. To help you handle all of the ingredients tongs will make your life a lot easier. “Tongs are the most important tool for a seafood boil,” said Nelson. “So make sure you have a couple pairs.” To serve the meal, you have a couple options to give it that fish shack vibe: cover the table with newspaper, put the strained boil ingredients straight on the table, and let people have at it, or, Nelson suggests, use soda or beer boxes to serve up individual portions. Either way, this makes your cleanup super easy.
How to Do a Clambake
Clambakes are the New England version of a seafood boil, featuring—you guessed it—clams. It’s a bit of a misnomer, however, since you actually steam in the ingredients in a clambake.
In their eponymous cookbook, the owners of Portland, Maine seafood darling Eventide suggest “using a 12-inch bamboo steamer basket with a lid, set over a wok with a small amount of liquid in it to create steam” or using a pot with a steamer insert. Similar to the seafood boil, you’ll add corn, potatoes, pork, as well as optional lobster, mussels, and of course, clams, to the steamer basket. For your flavor enhancers, they suggest looking for ways “to bring acidic, spicy, funky condiments and a carb wrapper of some kind to the table for that extra kick.” For serving, they suggest putting the bamboo basket on a platter and allowing people to eat right out of that.
Other Seafood Dishes
Try your hand at a seafood paella, which Mullen says he loves having guests eat right out of the pan, or one-pot seafood stews like cioppino that you can serve up with some crusty bread. Nelson suggests New Orleans’ style barbecue shrimp, which, contrary to its name, isn’t actually barbecued, but instead features shrimp cooked down in Worcestershire and butter sauce. Nelson teaches a class on the dish if you want to learn more.
Drinks for a Seafood Feast
A seafood feast isn’t complete without some refreshing drinks. For beers, Eventide’s owners recommend pilsners or wheat beers to pair with a clambake, but those options would work with any of these dishes. Bubbly and seafood is always a great pairing and sparkling rose is a summer go to. You can also serve up crisp white wines like gruner veltliner or sauvignon blanc. Additionally (or alternatively), you can do a big batch spiked lemonade, with a non-alcoholic version for kids or teetotalers.
Whatever you serve up, remember that the best thing about the summer seafood experience is that it’s unpretentious and really about enjoying the gifts of the sea with people you love.