+ A Hilton Head Vacation (Part 1)
~ This Seafood Stew is a showstopper masterpiece that’ll absolutely wow ’em at your next dinner party! But with lots of make-ahead steps, it’s also an easy family meal … perfect when you need a little bit of beach in your life! Hearty and nutritious, Sea Island Seafood Stew is a mainstay on the menu at the hugely popular Skull Creek Boathouse in Hilton Head, South Carolina. ~
This Recipe: • Includes Make-Ahead Steps • Gluten Free •
When it comes to summer vacays, we’re almost always off on some epic beach adventure, with about 20-60 of our nearest and dearest, crazy-awesome-hilarious-fun relatives. The more the merrier (and the crazier)!
But spring break? That’s our time. Just the four of us. Our time to take a big, deep, calming breath before the jam-crammed spring months, booked to overflowing with sports schedules and concerts and year-end events.
And, over and over, when it comes to choosing a destination for our time, we keep drifting back to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Through the years, we’ve stayed all up and down the Carolina coastline, but something about HHI is just so perfect for a rejuvenating spring break.
We’re definitely not alone in this conviction, either. Seems most of Ohio agrees. We always chuckle at how many cars, sporting Ohio plates and HHI decals, are driving right along the freeway with us, on that 11-hour trek to find desperately needed sand and sun. After a looooooong Ohio winter, we all need a little Carolina sunshine … and we definitely know where to find it!
Hilton Head has a reputation for schwanky golf and tennis retreats, and the gorgeously manicured island keeps even those typically gauche Walmart and McDonald’s signs tastefully in check. It’s truly beautiful. Ahhhhhh … rejuvenating. And, despite the schwanky rap, it’s also tremendously laid back, fun and family-friendly. Kinda perfect, actually.
To kick off the fun this year, we made a list of our favorite HHI adventures – the can’t-miss things we wanted to do all over again. (Ahem … I will admit … making an action-item checklist isn’t exactly in line with a chill-out vacay. But, if you know my family well … ummmmmm … you’re not really surprised about this. 😉 )
So, anyway – that to-do list? Well, we hit just about all the highlights … and discovered a whole bunch of new ones, too! The list grows longer and longer each year!
Of course, there was the usual beach fun. Sand, surf and sun … cornerstones of all the very best getaways! Flying kites and playing lacrosse on the beach. Boogie boarding and scouting for sharks’ teeth. Stuff that never, ever gets old, no matter how many times you’ve done it.
We hung out at Coligny Beach and spent a happy afternoon playing a beach game we invented called Roll-y Ball Hole-y Trough-y In. (You’re smirking over the name, I know. But if you’re gonna think up a name for an entirely made-up game … it’s go-big or go-home time, my friends! Plus, it’s seriously fun, both to play and to say!)
We watched the dolphins swim by our condo at least once almost every day … and just took a big, deep breath of fresh ocean air. And we remembered how great it is to be our little family.
Pinckney is a National Wildlife Refuge with miles of easy-to-navigate trails and loads of terrific wildlife. If you’re a birder, you probably already have this stop on your list.
And if you’re from somewhere like Ohio and think alligators are super-cool and very novel, then Pinckney’s a slam dunk. It’s got both birds and alligators galore!
You can certainly walk the trials there, but you’ll get to see far more on bikes.
And Skull Creek Boathouse? A friend recommended it the first time we headed to Hilton Head, and it’s tops on our list every time we go back. Nestled amongst drooping live oaks and Spanish moss along the banks of the Skull Creek inlet, it’s the perfect combination of chill, beachy swagger and high-end eats.
Skull Creek is known for its innovative Lowcountry cuisine, and Executive Chef Brad Blake takes full advantage of the area’s fresh, local seafood. In addition, the restaurant’s Dive Bar features a seriously alluring list of sushi and ceviche (doesn’t get much fresher than that). But, if you’re a true landlubber when it comes to dining, Skull Creek’s still got ya covered with classics like butcher-cut steaks, ribs, salads, burgers and chicken sandwiches.
The restaurant is deliciously chillaxin’ fun any time of day, but it’s especially gorgeous (and busy) around sunset, with stunning waterfront views. You can choose to dine inside or out, on their sprawling, shaded terrace (hint hint … I’d definitely recommend outside!).
Not surprisingly, Skull Creek has received local and national awards – and was even recently featured on Food Network.
When we asked Chef Blake and the friendly staff out at Skull Creek if we could share one of their recipes with you guys, they were delighted and super helpful – and they even offered up one of their signature, headliner favorites – the Sea Island Seafood Stew!
It’s surprisingly simple and straightforward to make, even if you’re not used to cooking a lot of seafood (and you know we’ve got some tips to help you out!). Most of the prep can be done ahead, so it comes together easily at meal time. Totally perfect for a relaxed family dinner when you’re wishing you were at the beach … or (even better!) if you actually are at the beach!
But, despite how easy it is to make, this Seafood Stew is also a dressed-to-impress, wow-their-socks-off dinner party recipe. A total stunner that’ll make you look like a rock star chef! Added bonus: with so much healthy seafood and loads of nutritious veggies, it’s one restaurant-quality meal that you’ll feel absolutely great about serving, too!
So let’s do this! We’ve got tips galore …
Choosing Your Seafood – Feel free to substitute whatever seafood you prefer, or what’s on sale or just looks really terrific when you head to the market. On my most recent visit to Skull Creek Boathouse, I noticed that, on that day, they served this Seafood Stew with mussels, as well as the clams, shrimp, scallops and crab.
Also, if you’d like to save a bit of money, you can forgo the pricier jumbo lump crab meat and choose regular crab – you won’t have such big, plump individual pieces, but you will have a few extra bucks in your wallet.
In addition, shrimp, in particular, retain their flavor and texture well after being frozen – if you thaw them properly. Check out our article on How to Thaw Shrimp for the best methods. Then you can save a few bucks by stocking up on frozen shrimp any time you spot a good sale.
Rinsing and Purging Clams – If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry – it’s surprisingly easy. You simply want to encourage those little guys to expel any sand or grit they may have sucked in during their ocean-dwelling days. First off, discard any clams with broken or cracked shells. Then, firmly tap the shells of any open clams, and discard any that don’t close their shells within a minute or two. (Also – at the end of cooking your stew, you’ll want to discard any others that didn’t open during cooking.)
Next, put your clams in a bowl of cool, salted water (I use about 1 tablespoon of salt to each quart of water) for an absolute minimum of 30 minutes, but preferably for several hours or overnight, refrigerating them while they soak. It seems like everyone has their favorite purging method, and (if you’re really into ocean bivalves) you can read even more about all this HERE, HERE, HERE, or HERE.
Gumbo Filé – I confess that I’d never cooked with gumbo filé before this, and I’m guessing some of you (at least if you’re in the northern states) probably haven’t either. Not a problem – it’s inexpensive and easy to find at most grocery stores (at least it was in my town). Turns out, it’s simply ground sassafras. Apparently, it can function in stews and gumbos as both a thickener and a flavor component. One note, though – some stores stock it in the spice aisle, while others keep it in their “ethnic” section near other creole and cajun foods. Gumbo file is available on Amazon, too, if you’re having trouble finding it in stores or want to take a peek online to see what it is you’re looking for.
Healthier Rice – I’ll bet you know what I’m going to say here, at least if you hang around THK much! At Skull Creek Boathouse, they serve this delicious Seafood Stew with the more traditional long-grain white rice. But, for a boost of nutrition, we use brown rice when we make this at home.
Making a Half Batch – Before you dive into buying all that beautiful seafood and assembling this showstopper of a stew, do a quick calculation. Notice that the recipe, as Chef Blake shared it, makes a whopping 18 cups of stew (plus even more once you factor in the rice). It’s absolutely perfect for wowing a hungry crowd at a dinner party, but might be a tad more than you really need for just a family meal. It’s easy to scale this recipe down and make a half batch if that’s all you need!
Make-Ahead Tips – As we mentioned above, you’ll want to get your clams soaking a bit ahead of time. Most all of the veggie chopping and prep work can also be done several hours ahead or even the day before – just refrigerate the chopped veggies separately until you’re ready to get cookin’. With everything prepped ahead, this comes together easily, with a lot of hands-off cooking time (since you’ll want a few extra moments to sip a beachy umbrella drink and slip into comfy flip-flops!).
I usually miss Hilton Head before we’ve even actually left it. So I cherish this Seafood Stew as the perfect souvenir … one that I can make again and again at home, whenever I need to find my own little bit of beach.
P.S. Read more about Hilton Head and discover another of our favorite restaurants tomorrow … plus a delicious recipe for Caprese Grilled Fish that’s ideal for easy summer grilling!
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup diced celery (about 3 stalks)
- 1 cup chopped green pepper (about 1 medium pepper)
- 1 cup diced onion (about half a medium onion)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 (15-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (or 1 [28-ounce] can)
- 2 1/2 cups crab or seafood stock
- 20 middle neck clams, rinsed and purged (see note)
- 2 cups fresh green beans, stemmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
- 1 pound bay scallops (such as North Carolina Calico)
- 20 shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 1/2 cups frozen okra, thawed
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2-3 ears) or frozen, thawed kernels
- 1 tablespoon gumbo filé (ground sassafras)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon minced, fresh)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried coriander
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and black pepper to taste
- cooked rice, as desired, for serving (Chef Blake typically uses traditional white rice, but we like to substitute brown rice for a nutrition boost)
- hot sauce, if desired
- Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat.
- Sauté celery, green pepper, onion, and garlic, stirring frequently so the garlic doesn't burn, until they begin to soften and brown slightly, about 8-10 minutes.
- Add tomatoes and stock, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
- Add clams and continue simmering until the clams pop open, about 10-18 minutes, depending on size.
- Add green beans and continue simmering for about 5 minutes (see note).
- Add crab, scallops, shrimp, okra, corn, gumbo filé, thyme, coriander, and bay leaf. Cook until the seafood is just cooked through. Discard any clams that did not open. Taste and season generously with salt and black pepper.
- Serve over rice, passing hot sauce at the table if desired.
Cleaning and purging clams: Discard any clams with broken or cracked shells. Then, firmly tap the shells of any clams with open shells, discarding any that don't close their shells within a minute or two. Scrub the clams' shells with a firm brush to remove any sand or grit. Next, put the clams in a bowl of cool, salted water (about 1 tablespoon of salt to each quart of water) for several hours or overnight, so the clams "spit out" any sand they're retaining and you don't have gritty stew.
Green beans: You can vary exactly when you add the green beans, depending on how thick your beans are, and also on your personal preference of how al dente or well done you prefer them. Adding them in as written in the recipe should yield just-cooked, relatively al dente green beans, if using medium-thick beans.
Half batch: Note that this recipe, as written, makes about 18 cups of stew, plus rice. It easily scales down.
Make-ahead tips: Don't forget to start your clams soaking a few hours ahead of time. In addition, to make this recipe a snap at mealtime, you can prep nearly all the veggies ahead, and refrigerate them separately until you're ready to cook.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 18 servings Serving Size: 1 cup of stew (plus rice which is not included in calculation)
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 279Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 125mgSodium: 1647mgCarbohydrates: 18gFiber: 3gSugar: 5gProtein: 42g
Nutrition information should be considered an estimate only, and may vary depending on your choice of ingredients or preparation. No guarantees are made regarding allergies or dietary needs. Always consult a physician or dietician for specific advice and questions.