Serious Entertaining

Seasonal menu planning for the perfect dinner party.

Serious Entertaining: A New England Seafood Dinner

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, unless otherwise noted]

I was born in Boston and was raised New York as a kid before going back to live in Boston for another 10 years during and after college. Whenever convenient, I like to consider myself a New Englander. That time is usually in the summer, when the rocky beaches are at their drizzliest and the coastal clam shacks fire up the boilers and fryers.

I spent a lot of my childhood vacationing on Cape Cod, visiting Boston, digging for clams, poking at crabs with sticks, fighting over the fried clam bellies with my sisters, and sucking the meat out of lobster legs. My very first food memory is of me and my dad sitting on the back porch of our friends place on the Cape. He was daring me to eat some hot-ass green salsa (which I did), then telling me that the oyster I'd just shot back was still alive while I was eating it, and following it up by telling me that it'll live with me the rest of my life and grow bigger and bigger in my belly.

In the ensuing years I've sent more than a few down the hatch to keep that first one company, which may explain why my belly has been getting consistently larger.

I still make it a point to make at least one or two New England road trips every summer so that I can get my seafood fix. But even when I can't get up to Yankee-land, I'll do my best to get my fix right at home. While it's nearly impossible to find decent fried clams in New York (the only exception I've found is at the excellent Littleneck in Gowanus), we can still get our hands on a few staples.

Hors D'Oeuvres: Fresh Shucked Oysters

First up: Freshly shucked oysters. Cold and briny with the fresh, salty-air scent of the ocean, they are the only animal commonly consumed live in the Western world. Paired with an ice-cold beer or a crisp, dry white wine or Champagne, they are the perfect hors d'oeuvre or appetizer.

I personally prefer the brinier, cleaner tasting Atlantic oysters from the waters of New England. Wellfleets from the Cape, with their greenish-blue tinged shells, are the best, but the now-widely available Island Creeks from Duxbury (also from the Cape) are consistently excellent. Malpeques from Maine or Blue Points from Long Island's Great South Bay are some of my other favorites. If you're looking for the latter, make sure that you're getting the real Long Island Blue Points and not New Jersey or Virginia Blue Points, which are far less flavorful and only exist to bank off the good name of the real deal.

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[Photograph: Carrie Vasios]

My mom likes her oysters with a squeeze of lemon. My dad (who is now the proud bearer of a commercial oystering license) like a touch of horseradish and tartar sauce. I tend to reach for the mignonette, essentially a mixture of vinegar and shallots seasoned with a ton of black pepper.

Whatever you do, make sure your oysters are darn fresh, and that you know how to shuck'em before you begin.

Get the recipe for Oysters with Mignonette here! »

Appetizer: Clam Chowder

clam chowder

Real New England clam chowder should be hearty and full flavored but not thick and sludgy like most of the "award winning" junk that is served around the country (and even around New England). The key is to start with great ingredients—big chunks of salt pork or bacon, live cherrystone or littleneck clams, and Yukon Gold potatoes—and to keep the thickeners at a minimum. My version uses no flour at all, and just a modest amount of heavy cream. The secret lies in making a flavorful soup base, then straining it, blending the strained liquids to emulsify it into a creamy broth, then stirring the clams, pork, and vegetables back in.

Get the recipe for New England Clam Chowder here! »

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[Photograph: Molly Sheridan]

And, of course, no clam chowder would be complete without a big handful of oyster crackers. You can go the classic route with Westminster crackers made with the same recipe in Westminster, Massachusetts, for the last 200 years, or just make the darn things yourself.

Get the recipe for DIY Oyster Crackers here! »

Main Course: Lobster Rolls

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There's a lot of debate as to what constitute the perfect cold lobster roll. I'm gonna set the record straight: The lobster must be perfectly tender and sweet, boiled or steamed just until cooked through before being chilled in ice water and shucked. It must be very lightly dressed in a mayonnaise-based dressing that should not be too flavorful, lest it detract attention from the lobster itself.

Garnishes should be kept to a minimum. A single leaf of greenleaf lettuce is acceptable, though not desirable. Celery or a touch of shallot in the salad for crunch is ok sometimes, but I prefer a light sprinkle of sliced chives.

The bun must be a side-split New England-style hot dog bun, preferably Pepperidge Farm from Connecticut, and it absolutely must be toasted to a golden brown in warm butter.

While a cold lobster roll is classic, a warm Connecticut-style roll is great for a change.

Get the recipe for Cold Lobster Rolls here! »
Get the recipe for Warm Connecticut Style Lobster Rolls here! »

For the Ambitious: A Clam Bake

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New England fare is simple by nature, and you don't really need much else on the menu to call it a day, but if you really want to go all out, the clam bake is the way to go. Traditionally, clam bakes take place on the beach. You cook by digging a large hole or trench in the sand, lining it with wet burlap, lighting a huge bonfire to heat up sea rocks, dropping them at the bottom of the trench, covering them with seaweed to create steam, then piling all the food—clams, mussels, lobsters, corn, potatoes, and linguiça sausage—on top before burying it in sand to steam.

I'll be honest: I've only ever attempted it once, and while it was a smashing success in terms of how happy the diners were, it took a long and circuitous route to get there, fraught with pitfalls and paved with errors.

Much easier is to simply do it all indoors. You don't get quite the same smoky, briny flavor of real wood smoke in a pit, but the results are nevertheless delicious.

Get the recipe for Indoor Clam Bake here! »

For Dessert: Classic Blueberry Pie

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[Photograph: Lauren Weisenthal]

Yeah, there's Boston cream pie and cider donuts and all that fun stuff, but to me, nothing says New England dessert like a classic blueberry pie, the official dessert of Maine. We're not quite in blueberry season yet, but frozen wild Maine blueberries are excellent for making pies (and a heck of a lot better than the fresh blueberries from Peru and Mexico we get during the rest of the year).

Get the recipe for Classic Blueberry Pie here! »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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