By Joe Crea, Northeast Ohio Media Group

Sure as the leaves turn colors and the stands fill with football fans, a certain briny smell scents the air this time of year. It’s the aroma of steaming clams wafting on the chill breeze. No doubt about it. Clambakes are one of Cleveland’s favorite feasts.

You needn’t look far to find them, in newspaper ads, in church bulletins, on the airwaves. And on neighbors’ decks and patios. Despite the fact that we’re several hundred miles from the nearest ocean, Northeast Ohio ranks among the nation’s largest consumers of clams and clambakes.

“Without question, this area pulls more clams, collectively, than any other city in America,” says Jim Catanese of Classic Seafood in Cleveland.

“I worked in New York City, at Fulton Fish Market, and they were constantly amazed by the demand here,” Catanese says.

Ohio’s historical links to New England may be a key to that appetite, he says, but generations of strong marketing play a role as well.

“Years and years ago, the old-timers developed a seafood business that — in a traditionally slow time of year here — found a niche,” Catanese says. “They developed a business with the corn that was being harvested, the sweet potatoes being dug, and clams coming into season.

“It hasn’t really lost any steam or momentum at all,” he adds.

The ingredients rarely vary. Anyone who’s dug into a couple of local bakes can rattle off the key elements. Typically they include a dozen clams (usually tied in a mesh bag), half a chicken, a sweet potato, ear of corn and a roll and butter. Coleslaw and clam broth are usually part of the deal. Variations abound, of course — steak instead of chicken, redskin potatoes to replace the yams, skip the broth and spoon up some creamy chowder.

Local chefs gussy up their versions or include extras. Chris Hodgson of Hodge’s in downtown Cleveland offers “smashed” yams and sherry coleslaw. Blue Canyon Kitchen & Tavern in Twinsburg includes all-you-can-eat Black Garlic Clam Chowder, corn spoon bread and roasted chicken. Regan Reik, executive chef of Pier W in Lakewood, uses a South Asian-style tandoor oven. The seafood and other ingredients, along with confit chicken (slowly poached in olive oil), are cooked in a hauntingly fragrant broth of coconut milk, lemongrass and lime.

Along the Atlantic coast where “shore dinners” are common weekend gatherings in season, chicken isn’t always part of the equation.

“The East Coast clambake tends to include fish of some kind, usually cod,” says Catanese. Soft-shell or “steamer” clams are favored (“they think the steamers are sweeter,” he says) though when that variety is special-ordered here, it’s usually for deep-frying in clam rolls.

Elliott Lewis, fishmonger for Whole Foods Market in University Heights, thinks it’s a mistake to omit chicken from the steamer.

“Here people sometimes grill the chicken on the side — but that steals flavor from the broth,” says Lewis, who started out as a crabber on the coast of North Carolina and has spent the past 27 years cutting fish.

“Adding chicken and live seaweed to the steamer keeps the moisture and flavor in the fish and other ingredients,” he says.

One big change over the years has been the gradual shift away from serving steamed cherrystone clams, in favor of middleneck or topneck varieties.

“Once they open up, they’re chewy — real chewy,” Lewis says.

“Years ago, everyone bought cherrystones,” Catanese agrees. “Now if someone wants to buy cherrystones, I try to talk them out of it.”

That’s because their extra-large size and lower price led shoppers to believe cherrystones were the best value — except cherrystones, essentially more mature clams, grow tough as they age.

“The longer they’re in the water, the bigger they’ll grow,” Catanese says.

Cherrystones are best suited for stewing in chowders, or added to the clam steamer to intensify the aroma and taste of the broth. (After the bake is served, the meat from cherrystones can be pulled, diced and added to soups, pasta or grain dishes.) Do-it-yourself clambakers should choose middleneck clams, which constitute almost 90 percent of sales for clambakes, Catanese says.

“They’re just the right size, they’re not too tough, and people are still getting good value.”

Reserve the littleneck clams for pasta dishes, bouillabaisse and similar dishes where cooking times are more easily controlled. Lewis says the smaller clams dry out easily. While assembling ingredients, look for ways to add or enhance flavors naturally, rather than just dousing your bake with salt or sodium-laden seasonings.

“There are still plenty of fresh herbs in the gardens or in the stores,” Lewis says. “Old Bay is OK, but it’s like 40 percent sodium. If you use it, go easy. Great broth is broth you can just sip and enjoy good, full flavor — you want to taste the sweet seafood and other flavors, not a mouthful of salt.”

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