Florida style CLAMBAKE/Seafood from Sunshine State gives new slant to tradition

BUSHELS of lobsters, mounds of hard-shell clams, dozens of ears of corn on the cob, all baking in a steaming bed of seaweed at the beach -- that's a clambake. It's a New England clambake, of course -- the ultimate summer cookout for many Americans -- like the open-pit cookery the Indians did years ago. But there's a newcomer on the scene when it comes to cookouts. It's the Florida clambake.

On one of the few remaining undisturbed barrier islands off the Florida coast, various food editors gathered for one of these innovative clambakes.

This was not a clambake in the New England tradition. It was really a seafood picnic at the beach. The food wasn't cooked in a pit over hot coals steaming with seaweed, but the event had ties to the original clambakes. You might even say it had New England roots.

The clams are the connection.

Florida, it seems, has always had clams on the sandy shores of the beaches on the central east coast. But Floridians are more partial to their other shellfish: the wonderful stone and blue crabs; oysters, often cooked at oyster roasts; calico scallops and spiny lobsters; and four kinds of shrimps -- pink, brown, white, and rock shrimps. They're also happy with the state's famous red snapper and pompano, as well as grouper and mullet.

Clams were ignored as a commercial product, it seems, until people coming down from the North to retire or to enjoy the winter sun kept talking about them. It was these out-of-staters who created the demand for what is now a thriving clam industry.

``In 1984 we had a clam rush,'' says Charles Thomas, marketing chief at the Florida Department of Natural Resources, who organized the recent clambake.

``The people from the North came down here and brought with them a taste for hard-shell clams,'' he continues. ``They wanted steamed clams and raw clams and clam chowders. The demand kept growing.'' To meet the demand, the Department of Natural Resources started harvesting clams on a 40-mile stretch of the east coast.

Caldesi Park, where the clambake was held, is a wildlife sanctuary. It has miles of white sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico, a mangrove swamp on the bay side, and pine flatlands for homes of animals and birds in the interior. Access to the island was by boat.

A handsome buffet spread of both elegant and ordinary seafood dishes was set up under the island shelters on long picnic tables. Keith Keogh, executive chef at Disney World's EPCOT Center, was in charge of the food. All the fish was from Florida waters, much of it new and unfamiliar to the food writers from various cities across the United States.

After a cold seafood bar, Chef Keogh served two kinds of Florida seafood chowder, steamed clams, saut'eed flounder with dill sauce, fried mullet (Southern fried in a mixture of cornmeal and flour), and red snapper seasoned with ginger and orange, rolled into a little kebab, brushed with butter, and cooked on the charcoal broiler.

A professional bakemaster, usually the cook and organizer in large Northern clambakes, was absent here in Florida -- but the job was capably performed by Chef Keogh, who won the Seafood Superbowl competition earlier this year. Here are some of Mr. Keogh's recipes. Citrus Orange Broiled Snapper 2 ounces fresh butter 2 oranges 3/4 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled, minced 3/4 tablespoon powdered 10X sugar 1/8 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 4 10- to 12-ounce snapper fillets 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Melt fresh butter in preheated saucepan. Peel oranges, reserving peeling; squeeze oranges, reserving juice. Cut peel into thin strips, add to melted butter, saut'e. Add ginger, simmer 30 seconds.

Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add lemon juice and reserved orange juice and stir. Simmer 2 minutes, remove from heat. Cool, stirring occasionally.

Remove skin from fish and pound between two plastic wrap sheets until flattened to thickness of 1/8 inch. Sprinkle with nutmeg, spread orange sauce evenly over fillets, then roll and cut into 6 equal portions. Hold rolls in place with wooden picks.

Place on charcoal broiler and broil slowly until done, brushing occasionally with butter. Fernandina Fish Chowder 4 ounces each fresh scallops, shucked clams, diced Florida red snapper 2 ounces each Golden Gulf crab meat, fresh peeled and deveined small shrimps, diced flounder 3 ounces each diced turnip, celery 6 ounces onion, diced 4 ounces carrots, diced 2 ounces scallions, sliced 1 quart half and half milk-cream 4 ounces heavy cream 2 egg yolks 1/8 teaspoon each salt, cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons fresh dill, chopped 1/4 fresh Key lime 1 tablespoon cooking oil

In a preheated pot, place oil and all vegetables. Saut'e about 1 minute. Add all fish and shellfish. Saut'e until almost done, then add half and half, lime juice, dill, and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes.

In a bowl, combine heavy cream and egg yolks, blending well. Add to sauce pot, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and do not let chowder boil. Add salt to taste. Yields 6 10-ounce portions. Biscayne Bay Fish Chowder 8 ounces each fresh scallops, small peeled and deveined shrimps 1 pound fresh shucked clams 8 ounces each green tomato, celery, ripe tomatoes and onions, all diced 4 ounces each red bell pepper and onions, diced 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped 1/2 tablespoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 1/2 quarts fish stock or water 1 tablespoon oil or butter 1 bay leaf

In preheated pan heat oil; saut'e onions, celery, peppers 3 minutes. Add scallops, shrimps, and clams. Saut'e 3 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients and simmer 30 minutes to 1 hour. Yields 6 10-ounce portions.

The Florida Department of Natural Resources sponsored the clambake for members of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association at Caldesi Park and wildlife sanctuary.

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