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Food & Entertaining

A Coastal Delight in a Desert Setting

Author: Karen Fernau
Issue: July, 2016, Page 92
photography by Scott Sandler

Chef Cullen Campbell’s Mesquite Clambake is a Southwestern play on the traditional coastal meal. Whether at the beach or in your backyard, it’s a tasty alternative to holiday burgers and hot dogs.
Celebrate Independence Day With This Regional Twist on the Classic American Clambake

Clambakes are a summertime tradition dating back hundreds of years. They originated with Native Americans, who cooked shellfish in rock-and-seaweed-lined pits. Once early settlers learned about this tasty treat, it quickly became an American culinary mainstay. Today, clambakes are the ideal meal for large gatherings and warm-weather entertaining. Serve them indoors on large platters or poolside straight off of paper-lined tables.

“I like that it’s a communal meal,” says Chef Cullen Campbell, owner of Phoenix eateries Crudo and Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails. “People can eat most of it with their hands. It’s as fun as it is delicious, and it’s more interesting than throwing hot dogs and burgers on the grill.” Add some Southwestern elements, and this  traditionally coastal feast transforms into one that is perfectly at home in the desert.

Chef Cullen Campbell
Cullen begins by cooking a large pot of clams, shrimp, mussels, red potatoes and corn over mesquite wood, a desert native that burns hot and long. “The wood doesn’t impart a lot of flavor, but the smell says Arizona,” he notes. For a regional taste, he uses locally made chili-spiked link sausage in place of andouille.

Cullen especially likes that a clambake includes corn on the cob, a Fourth of July tradition on par with fireworks. Arizona’s corn harvest is a few weeks away, but other states ship their corn here just in time for the holiday. Cullen recommends buying the freshest corn available. Choose ears with crisp, green husks and yellow silk.

Traditional clambakes also use seaweed. Cullen recommends shopping at local Asian markets for ebi furikake, a shrimp-and-seaweed seasoning used in his clambake recipe. “I like what seaweed brings to the dish,” he said, “but if you want to keep to a Southwestern theme, substitute rosemary for the seaweed. This herb grows everywhere, and it grows all summer long.” He also likes to add seaweed to the fire and sprinkles ebi furikake for a garnish.

Just as he does in both his restaurants, Cullen brings a carefully crafted balance of tradition and innovation to his clambake. He weaves in local, regional touches that complement but not radically change the original.

His holiday menu also showcases a salad tossed with two other July standouts: tomatoes and watermelon. In another nod to the Southwest, he adds avocado slices. This Mexican food staple adds creaminess to the salad’s acidic and sweet flavors. Top the salad off with a drizzle of homemade buttermilk dressing.

Of course, no meal is complete without a thirst-quenching beverage. Clambakes go hand-in-hand with cold beer, chilled wine or a cool cucumber-and-vodka cocktail, such as the one created by mixologist Micah Olson, Cullen’s business partner. This combination adds up to the perfect summer celebration.

“You really don’t need the ocean,” said Cullen. “We’ve got everything you need for a clambake right here, except for the cool breeze.”

Chef Cullen’s Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Avocado, And Buttermilk Goddess Dressing

Serves 6-8

1 small heirloom watermelon
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes
2 avocados
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil

¼ cup minced chives
½ cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup quark (can substitute sour cream)
1 cup aioli
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons black pepper
½ cup buttermilk powder
½ tablespoons minced garlic
Salt to taste

Adding avocado to a traditional watermelon and tomato salad layers in a Southwestern flavor.
Dice watermelon flesh into bite-sized cubes. Set aside. Slice heirloom tomatoes and layer on a platter. Peel and remove pit from avocados. Slice into quarters and place over tomato slices. Top with watermelon cubes. Season with sea salt and olive oil. Set aside.

To make dressing, add all ingredients in a mixing bowl or blender and mix until smooth. Drizzle desired amount of buttermilk goddess dressing over the salad.

Chef Cullen’s Mesquite Clambake

Serves 6-8

1 bottle white wine
6 cups water
6 ounces Old Bay Seasoning
1 jar ebi furikake (available in Asian markets)
1 head garlic, peeled
2 pounds new red potatoes
8 ears corn, peeled, cleaned and cut into halves
2 ounces thyme leaves, chopped
1½ pounds chili-spiked link sausage, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 pounds shrimp with shells
4 pounds Manila clams
4 pounds mussels
½ pound butter, melted

Dig in and enjoy a Fourth of July classic: Chef Cullen’s Clambake includes clams, mussels, shrimp, corn, potatoes and Southwestern-style chili-spiked link sausage.
Soak 1 to 2 cups of mesquite wood chips in water for about an hour. Prepare grill by opening the vents. Add enough natural lump charcoal to the chimney starter to cover the charcoal tray with two layers. Place a crumpled newspaper in the bottom chamber and light. Allow charcoal to burn until a glowing red mass appears in the center. Remove chimney and spread coals evenly. Scatter mesquite wood chips over the charcoal. Allow about 10 minutes for mesquite to begin to smoke.

Place large, heavy baking pan or pot on top of the grill grate. Add wine, water, garlic and 2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning. Add potatoes and thyme. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add corn and sausage. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

Add clams and shrimp. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add mussels. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. In a small mixing bowl, add remaining Old Bay and ebi furikake. Mix well. Check to make sure all shellfish has opened. Remove and throw away any that remain closed. To serve, carefully spoon out shellfish, sausage, corn and potatoes onto a platter or table lined with butcher paper. Sprinkle with a mixture of Old Bay and ebi furikake. Serve with bowls of cooking liquid and melted butter.

Keys to a Successful Clambake

Ten years ago, buying shellfish in Arizona was an iffy proposition. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Fresh seafood, flown in daily, is now available in gourmet and specialty stores as well as mainstream local grocers.

Shellfish can intimidate even the most experienced cook, but there’s nothing complicated about buying, prepping and cooking clams, mussels and shrimp. A successful clambake depends more on the quality of the fish than the chef’s cooking prowess.

When buying, opt for shellfish that has a mild, briny aroma. If you detect a strong fishy odor, or if you’re unsure about how recently the shellfish was harvested, ask the fishmonger or grocer when it was delivered. Bivalves are sold live, and they should be no more than four days old. Once you get them home, refrigerate them in containers covered with clean, damp cloths. Throw out any that die before cooking. Cook within two days.

Chef Cullen Campbell, owner of Crudo and Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails, shares these tips for buying and prepping shellfish for an Arizona-style clambake:

n Clams with tightly closed shells are alive. If slightly open, a live clam should close when tapped. Discard any that remain open and those with cracked or broken shells. To prep, soak clams for 20 minutes in fresh water to flush saltwater and sand from the shells. Once soaked, use a firm brush to scrub off any remaining sand and barnacles.

n Like clams, mussels should be tightly closed or snap tightly closed when tapped. Discard any that fail the tap test. Also, pitch mussels with broken shells. Before cooking, scrub the shells with a brush and pull off the black fibrous beard. Warning: Soaking in tap water kills mussels.

n Always buy shrimp frozen. All shrimp are frozen after being caught. The shrimp found in the seafood counter that is labeled “fresh” has been defrosted and may have been on ice for a day or more. You can control the freshness by defrosting frozen shrimp just before cooking. Shrimp may be peeled before or after cooking.

Mixologist Micah Olson’s Summer Vodka-and-Cucumber Cocktail.

Serves 1

2 slices cucumber
1½ ounces Mission vodka
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
½  ounce simple syrup
1 bar spoon violet liqueur or syrup
2-3 ice cubes
Champagne or sparkling wine to finish

Muddle 1 cucumber slice in mixing glass. Next, add vodka, lime juice, simple syrup, violet liqueur and ice cubes. Shake well. Double strain into a coupe or martini glass. Top with a splash of Champagne or sparkling wine. Garnish with remaining cucumber slice.

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