In some parts of the country, children are already heading back to school. In my view, school shouldn’t start until after Labor Day, so families can take full advantage of what summer has to offer…including the delicious, fresh seafood.
And I can’t wrap up summer without sharing with you my recipe for a traditional New England-style seafood boil.
It starts with a flavorful broth
The first step involves making a flavorful broth or “court-bouillon” to which you’ll add your seafood and vegetables.
You actually don’t need any special equipment other than an extra-large pot. But you can manage without one.
If you have a steamer or pasta pot with a perforated insert, use it so you can simply lift everything out of the pot when it’s done, rather than pouring a huge pot of hot ingredients over a colander in your sink.
Directions for broth:
1.) Fill your largest pot three-quarters full with water and bring it to a boil. While it’s heating up, think about how you want your shellfish boil to taste.
2.) Always add some salt (more than you think you need). In New England, we add edible rockweed seaweed, available from any fish or lobster shack to add some salt and authentic “ocean flavor.” (You can also gather it yourself off the rocks near shore.)
3.) Then, add something to lower the pH. My mother and grandmother liked to pour in a bottle of white table wine. (Personally, I always like to keep another bottle chilled in the fridge for later on!)
If you’d like to skip the wine, you can use lemon juice instead, then toss the squeezed-out lemons in for extra flavor. Or if you prefer, you can use beer, or a combination of beer and citrus. You can also use white wine vinegar.
4.) Then, toss in some garlic (slice a whole head in half and toss it in, skins and all), onions or shallots, carrots, and celery for some added flavor.
5.) For seasoning, you can spice things up a bit with a bay leaf or two. Hot pepper sauce is a classic Louisiana- or Gulf Coast-style addition.
For mid-Atlantic flavor, use Old Bay Seasoning.
Or for an Italian or Provençal style, add crushed red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, and fresh thyme sprigs.
After you’ve added the flavorings for your broth, let the water boil for about 10 minutes and give it a taste. Be careful to let it cool before slurping it off the spoon. (My mother and grandmother used to dip in a crust of bread or breadstick.) You want your quick broth to taste noticeably salty.
Now, onto the main attractions…
Now, you’re ready to add some ingredients to your pot. You can add as many different ingredients as you want to your seafood boil. (And if you don’t have a large-enough pot, separate the broth evenly and use multiple pots.)
Personally, I like to follow the traditional combo of potatoes, corn on the cob, sausage, and two kinds of shellfish — usually at least one bivalve (clams or mussels) and at least one crustacean (lobster, shrimp, crab).
Below is the preferred list of the ingredients my family typically adds to seafood boils, along with their recommended cooking times and suggested amount per person.
Note: Each ingredient cooks at a different rate, so begin by adding the slowest cooking ingredients. And the amount per person also depends on how many other ingredients you’re using, so scale up or down accordingly.
- Blue Crabs: 2 to 4 crabs per person; cooks in about 10 minutes. For the freshest flavor, buy and cook live crabs.
- Clams: 3 to 6 per person; cooks in about 10 minutes. Use littleneck, Manila, or steamer clams, and scrub them well before cooking.
- Corn on the cob: 1/2 to 1 cob per person; cooks in 10 minutes. For optimal fresh sweetness, shuck just before cooking.
- Crawfish: 3 to 6 per person; cooks in about 8 minutes. Buy and cook live crawfish for the best flavor.
- Lobster: 1/2 to 1 lobster per person; cooks in 12 to 15 minutes. Buy and cook your lobster live for optimum freshness.
- Mussels: 3 to 6 per person; cooks in about 5 minutes. Wash and de-beard mussels before cooking. (The beards are also known as byssus threads. They are the filaments that the mussel uses to secure itself to hard surfaces, are usually brownish, and may resemble seaweed.
Most commercially available mussels have been farm-raised, so often the beards have already been removed. While I usually recommend wild-caught seafood, it’s important to mention that “farmed” mussels are actually wild. They’ve simply been gathered at a young age and encouraged to grow on man-made structures, making it easier for them to be harvested.)
But I just go across the street and gather them off the rocks (after I pay for my local license, of course).
- Potatoes: 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person; cooks in 20 to 25 minutes, depending on size. You don’t have to peel, just cut them into small pieces.
- Sausage: 1/8 to 1/4 pound per person; cooks in about 10 to 15 minutes. Use smoked or fully cooked sausages such as Portuguese linguiça, Polish kielbasa, Cajun andouille, or sweet and/or spicy Italian.
- Jumbo shrimp: 4 to 6 per person; cooks in about 3 minutes. Keep the shell on for added flavor (and the head, if you’re brave). Big jumbo shrimp are ideal for a shellfish boil.
With your broth at a rolling boil, place your potatoes at the bottom of the pot(s), since they have the longest cooking time.
Then, set a count-down timer for 25 minutes and add each ingredient as its time comes up. So, for example, once you hit 15 minutes, add the lobster and sausage; once you hit 10, add the corn and the clams; and so on, depending on the ingredients you’ve chosen. Keep the pot(s) covered between each addition.
Surveying the seafood
When the timer goes off, make sure the shells of your clams or mussels are wide open. (Discard whichever ones are not.) And your crabs, shrimp, or lobsters should appear bright red. If they do this sooner than the suggested time, pull them out of the liquid so they don’t overcook. If they take longer to get to this point, keep boiling them until they turn the correct color.
When you’re certain everything’s cooked through, drain out the broth. Or lift the ingredients out using tongs or a kitchen spider.
Then, lay the bounty on a table covered with newspaper to catch the drippings so your guests can share it easily.
Of course, this beautiful spread isn’t complete without some sauces for dipping. You can always serve up bowls of the flavorful cooking broth. And melted grass-fed butter and lemon wedges are a classic. You can also try spicy green dipping sauce or horseradish sauce. Or put out bottles of your favorite hot pepper sauce.
Don’t forget the napkins, nutcrackers, crab hammers, lobster crackers, and slender little forks and crab picks.
And last but not least, make sure you put out a bottle the cold white wine. I prefer a Sauvignon or Fumé Blanc.
When you finish the meal, take the shells and cobs out back to mulch.
It’s really the perfect time to enjoy this seafood boil. But truthfully, it makes a perfect meal for early autumn too.
And with all of the options and various preparation styles, a New England-style seafood boil is easily customizable to all types of palettes and preferences. That way, the whole family can enjoy a fresh, highly-nutritious summer meal.
P.S. – We want to see photos from your family seafood boil! Feel free to share them on my Facebook page or tell me about your favorite summer seafood recipe. I always enjoy hearing from my readers!