When I was younger, I used to abhor seafood. The closest I ever got to fresh fish—let alone lobster or crab—was fish sticks. And even then I was struggling to really accept them. You see, I was (and still am) a huge texture person. There was something so unusual about the texture of fish. I didn’t trust it. It was mushy and firm at the same time, and it flaked really strangely off of my fork. Once, my dad tried to get me to eat the slightly better frozen breaded fish filets—a big step up from fish sticks. But the fact that layers of fish flesh inside the breading was visible automatically sealed the deal that I hated it. Without touching it. Nice try dad.
As a family, we used to visit New Hampshire to see extended family on my dad’s side, and I used to actually gag in my seat when everyone was picking meat out of papery crustacean bodies. I could not fathom this barbarian act.
Through the years, I stepped it up and began eating Minnesota lake fish, freshly fried followed by tilapia and other white, nonthreatening fish. The day I discovered the magic of tuna was like heaven. And from then, I’ve made it my goal to try as much seafood as possible. This is really easy now that I’m an East-coaster. Pennsylvania was a start compared to the Midwest, but Long Island puts it all to shame. Menus explode with the shore offerings. As do the grocery stores! So now I can make up for my stubborn, picky youth…and then some.
I decided to share some of the bounty I’ve been lucky enough to try and indulge in out here. Because what seems more patriotic than an All-American clambake?! It’s all rather easy to prepare. Actually I lied. The lobster is a bit terrifying. But it’s all worth it.
Speaking of lobster: why do lobsters turn red when they cook? If you’ve ever picked out a lobster from the live fish tank at a restaurant or grocery store, you’re familiar with the fact that lobsters are not red at all really. They are a dark, deep color—almost black! But when a lobster arrives on your plate, it is suddenly bright red. What the heck?
Well, lobsters, and other crustaceans like shrimp and crab, have a compound called astaxanthin in their shells. Astaxanthin is a pigment in the family of carotenoids—that same family that is responsible for the orange in your carrots (beta carotene). Astaxanthin in its free form appears red. However, in a lobster’s shell, the astaxanthin is bound to proteins that change how the pigment interacts with light. Bizarrely, when it binds to protein, it shifts the light and emits either blue or yellow. When you’re looking at layers and layers of these yellow/blue bound pigments, you get the mixing of colors creating a muddy brown. Just like the end of a messy paint project.
Once you drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water, the game changes. The high temperature causes the proteins in the lobster’s shell to denature and unbind from the astaxanthin molecules. That frees up the astaxanthin and returns it to its red color turning the whole shell red all the way through.
Fun fact: the compound astaxanthin also colors the feathers of flamingos and the flesh of salmon!
This delicious feast combines all of the best seafood, and it’s truly a one-pot meal! Hail to the easy cleanup which means that you can enjoy more sunshine. Happy Fourth!
PS: Looking for more seafood science? Check out this recent post that explains why clams open when they cook!
Clambake for Two
Serves 2 (if you’re pretty hungry)
Adapted from The New Potato
2 cups dry, flavorful white wine
2 cups water
2 Bay leaves
½ pound baby red potatoes, scrubbed
2 medium lobsters
½ pound Littleneck clams (the sweet, small ones), scrubbed
½ pound Mussels, scrubbed, beards removed (that stringy net-like stuff hanging off of their shells—some do not have beards if they were grown on farms)
½ pound shrimp, shell on, deveined (cut down the shell with kitchen shears to get at the deveining)
2 ears corn
1 lemon, quartered, plus extra wedges for serving
6 cloves garlic, crushed
Handful of parsley, stems attached
3-4 sprigs of thyme
- In a very large stockpot (at least 8 quarts), place a steamer basket. Add the water, wine, and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and bring to a boil.
- Add the potatoes to the pot, cover, and cook 5 minutes.
- (Carefully!) Add the lobsters, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. (Caveat: you should remove any rubber bands from the lobster claws before cooking, but this is scary. So be careful! And use kitchen shears.)
- Add the corn, clams, shrimp, lemon, garlic, parsley, and thyme to the pot. Cover and cook for 5 more minutes.
- Add the mussels, cover, and cook until all shellfish open. About 3-5 minutes more.
- Remove the seafood, corn, and potatoes from the pot, discarding any shellfish that do not open, the garlic, herbs, and lemon wedges.
- Serve everything with melted butter, extra lemon wedges, and a lobster claw cracker. Oh and a glass of white wine. And lots and lots of napkins. Enjoy!