We have been vacationing with friends this past week, enjoying an amazing time on Cushing Island just off the coast of Portland Maine. The week is wrapping up and tomorrow we will all be heading home, so yesterday we had our big event of the week, a lobster bake! The lobster bake along with the rest of this week would not have been possible without our fearless leader, Dana, who grew up in Portland and has strong family ties to this amazing island. And while she did not spend summer vacations here as a child, since she moved to California it has become a tradition for her family to spend a few weeks here each summer and we were lucky enough to join her and her husband for part of it this year. Just one of the amazing benefits of lots of us being “empty nesters” now as Jeff and Dana’s sons couldn’t make the trek to Maine this time around.
There is lots to say about the island, more than could possibly fit into one blog post, but the important parts where lobster bakes are concerned revolve mainly around the facts that there are no stores of any kind on the island and transportation is limited to a thrice daily ferry boat, which makes getting the groceries part of the adventure.
Dana and I started out bright and early, catching the 8:00 a.m. ferry to Portland where her mom picked us up, which meant we got to hit all the best spots for everything instead of being limited to what was in walking distance of the harbor. We started with Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland for a much needed cup of coffee and the best bagels in town. They sell out every day, usually by 10:00, and I’m sure that we helped with that since we bought two dozen. Dana had wisely decided that bagels would be better than sliced bread with the bake and we all agreed. Next we hit Jordan’s Farm for eggs, corn, potatoes, sausages, and salad fixings and one of my favorite finishing salts from Maine Salt Farm. We popped into Hannaford market for some deep foil pans and paper plates (they actually have Chinet plates in the shape of giant ovals here which I can only attribute to the plethora of lobsters), and our last stop was Harbor Fish Market for the belle of the ball, 20 live Maine lobsters and fresh mussels and clams! We had so many boxes and bags by this point I do not know how Dana and I would have managed without her sweet mom, Margie, driving us.
We caught the noon ferry back to Cushing’s and luckily had a few more hands to help carry everything since Dana’s niece and her boyfriend, along with Margie, joined us for the trip back. This was going to be a party, with lots of Dana’s family joining us, so we had bought large quantities of everything. And though getting all those groceries was a lot of work the hard part still lay ahead, getting the fire the perfect temperature and keeping it that way long enough to cook two complete batches of lobster. Jeff and Dana have a lot of experience here, with some bakes going more smoothly than others, so she recommends consulting the Eventide cookbook which has a lot of helpful pointers if you are going to try this on your own. Apparently Eventide is a great local restaurant, so I’ll have to try it on my next trip to Portland.
Jason and the rest of the guys helped Jeff get the fire started while I gathered seaweed for the bake, which it turns out is kind of a misnomer. Although we were cooking everything on an open fire you want enough seaweed and saltwater in there that the shellfish actually steam. Deep foil pans work perfectly, and we put a few inches of seawater along with a layer of seaweed in the bottom, then topped it with corn, potatoes, sausage, onions, and eggs. That gets covered with another layer of seaweed before adding the lobsters, mussels, and clams. A final layer of seaweed and you’re ready to pop those pans straight on the coals.
We did six pans at a time, each with two lobsters and at least one egg “timer” as the lobster should be done when the egg is cooked hard and the lobster shells are that beautiful bright red color. All told, it took about an hour and 15 minutes for each bake, and we went through 3 full bags of charcoal in the steel drum we used for cooking. Jeff rotated the pans and added more seawater as necessary to make sure everything cooked evenly and they were actually steaming. A soaking wet canvas cloth over the top of the drum also helped to keep the heat and steam in while they were cooking.
We had our feast right on the beach which was perfect as cracking fresh lobster is a huge mess! Every time I cracked a claw it released a lot of liquid, which thankfully drained right onto the sand. Between that and the melted butter you’ll need a lot of napkins. And it is worth noting that this is the one time I recommend salted butter, a little minced parsley and dill added to the flavor. Of course it was delicious, Maine lobster is so much sweeter and much more tender than the spiny lobsters that are native to California. Plus it is such a fun experience, a perfect cap to an amazing trip with great friends!
I may at some point use the link to Harbor Fish Market to try and recreate this magic in California, but truthfully I think I’d rather just come back! We definitely fell in love with Maine and the magical Cushing Island.
- Steel Drum or other large container for a charcoal fire
- 6 Deep foil pans
- Large canvas tarp
- Crab crackers
- 12 live Maine lobsters
- 12 ears corn on the cob
- 14 eggs
- 12 sausages I like mild Italian
- 6 small onions
- 24-36 small new potatoes
- 2 lbs fresh mussels
- 2 lbs steamer clams
- 1 lb salted butter, melted minced fresh herbs optional
- 6 lemons cut into wedges
- Fresh seaweed and seawater
- Heat a large charcoal fire, set aside a canvas tarp to soak in seawater. Collect several buckets of fresh seaweed and seawater while the fire is heating.
- Soak clams and mussels in seawater for 20 minutes which allows them time to spit out any sand they may have inside. Do not use any shellfish that float or eat any that don't open up when cooked.
- Spread out foil pans and put a few inches of seawater and a layer of seaweed in the bottom of the pans. Divide corn, sausages, onions, eggs, and potatoes between the pans and cover with a layer of seaweed. Divide mussels and clams between pans, top with two live lobsters (bands holding pincers removed) and a final layer of seaweed. Top two pans with an additional egg "timer"
- Place foil pans on rack that is placed directly above coals and cover with wet canvas tarp. Check pans frequently, you should see seawater boiling in them. Add additional coals if fire is not hot enough and additional water as necessary. You can also rotate the pans if the fire is hotter in one part.
- The lobster is done when it is bright red, and the eggs should take exactly as long as the lobster so when you think they are done use tongs to pull one of the egg "timers" and crack it. If the egg looks hard boiled everything should be done!
- Spread out your feast on a table covered in newspaper. Serve with melted butter, sliced lemons, a big green salad, crusty bread, and LOTS of napkins!