I adore Mississippi and I find it hard to leave, unless it is for my annual summer vacation with my family on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Returning home is always a treat, to the land where my partner's name is pronounced "Mahk", where one risks hypothermia by venturing deeper than your toes in the water (I am not being facetious, I had hypothermia as a kid), but where coast lines are stunningly crisp and lobster reigns as the quintessential dish alongside other delicacies like steamers and little necks. Each year I return to the same cottage that our family has visited as far back as my Mom's childhood. The memories run deep for all of us, yet each year we manage to make new ones. It is at this cottage that I fondly remember digging quahogs, a large chowder clam about the size of fist, which we later ate on the half-shell on the porch with a little cocktail sauce. The adults washed them down with with beer while I was content to enjoy the salty, chewy clam straight-up. Most would think we were crazy as these are known as large, tough clams, not your typical raw fair, but it is here that I fell in love with shellfish on the half-shell and for that matter, pretty much anything raw. I don't know whether it was the thrill of illegally clamming (shhhhh), the end of day bonding on the porch with the whole family, or my discovered love of shellfish, but this is an amazingly fond and poignant memory that I cherish.
While this blog is actually about my recent trip, now that I am on a roll, I feel that I need to give homage to the clam. I feel comfortable saying that it is my favorite seafood and one that you usually do not find on menus in Mississippi. Growing up, when asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner, it was either steamers or fried clams. For those who have not enjoyed a good steamer, humor me as I describe this unusual crustacean. Steamers or steamed clams are narrow, thin shelled clams served steamed in a big bowl alongside a cup of broth and a ramekin of drawn butter. To eat, you open the shell, remove the clam, and using your finger nails, remove the ugly black thing that covers the neck before bathing the clam in the broth. I enjoy amassing a few before enjoying the final step of dipping them in drawn butter. Admittedly in writing this, I realize this will sound revolting to most people, but to me, this is pure heaven. In addition to steamers, high on my list are fried clams. Never, never, never would I consider eating a fried clam strip, but instead, the big, juicy bellied clams, typically served in a red and white cardboard box/bowl with a side of tartar sauce. The juicy to chewy ratio is incredibly important here; the more succulent the better. My mom and I are the fried clam aficionados of the family and despite the fact that you never feel well after all that fried, incredibly rich, goodness, we continue to seek out the "best".
Now that I have taken you down my New England clam memory lane, I return to the present. Our vacation spot is in Provincetown, MA, which is at the extreme far end of Cape Cod. Known for its liberal culture and scenic beaches, I was excited to try a few seafood restaurants while in town. My sister Meredith, her husband Morgan and I set out one night to see what the town had to offer. After scrutinizing many typical New England menus, we decided on Lorraine's, a Mexican restaurant with an abundance of seafood on the menu, a long walk down Commerce Street, well into local territory. I liked that it was not your typical tourist seafood fare. Having done no research, I was thrilled to be seated with what I initially thought was an extensive wine list, but I soondiscovered was a tequila-by-the-glass, list. I have often heard of good sipping tequilas, but I have never explored. Our waiter explained that most tequilas on the menu had 3 categories, blanco, reposata and añejo which as listed ranged from from young and bright to smokey and aged, often in whiskey barrels. Meredith and I chose the Sauza Hornitos Añejo and Morgan went with the Campo Azul Añejo. Served neat, the Sauza was indeed smoky with a hint of chocolate and surprisingly smooth. Our server smirkingly delivered us each a small glass, alongside our tequila, and when asked what was in it, he refused to tell us until we had tasted it, simply explaining that it was a palate cleanser. After we obligingly tasted, he divulged the delicious concoction and get this- it was tomato juice infused with orange and shallot! Can we say, unusual bloody mary? I am in love and I am now on a mission to find more places with a sipping tequila list.
The menu ranged from duckling to paella and seeing as I wanted seafood, I opted for the crab enchiladas. I was served an incredibly healthy portion of "flour tortillas filled with fresh crab, cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, capers, green olives, & sauce picante" along side refried beans and rice. My dish was a divine balance of mellow cheese and sweet large lump crab, finished with briny capers. Morgan went with the Red fish, which was served alongside fresh grilled vegetables. Meredith ordered the scallops and mushroom risotto, served with grilled vegetables. Her scallops were cooked perfectly and complemented by the risotto which was rich and deeply flavored with the mushrooms. The grilled carrots were noteworthy, in that they were naturally candied when grilled, yet a little smoky and crisp. While the portions were incredibly generous, they were not making up for flavor with more food.
Following dinner, instead of dessert we opted for cordials. At my waiter's suggestion, I tried the Belle de Brillet, a sweet, pear flavored cognac and found a new use for dessert calories. Morgan tried a more traditional cognac and Meredith enjoyed a glass of port. We all loved the Belle de Brillet so much that we bought a bottle the next day.
The following night my parents and I went to our more traditional haunt in P-town, call Napi's, which is fairly classic seafood restaurant with a bit of a Portuguese bent. I was craving the baked stuffed lobster I had last year, but as it was not offered, I opted for the special lobster bouillabaisse; a half lobster, served in a spicy broth with little neck clams, mussels, cod, onions and chorisco. My dad ordered the pound-and-a-half steamed lobster and my mom selected a scallop penne. What I love about lobster, and correct me if I am wrong, I believe it is the only meal traditionally served with a bib. I love seeing my nearly octogenarian, career-military, six-foot-two father, all decked out in a lobster bib! Heaven forbid you order lobster and don't put on the bib - it is part of the ritual - love it and embrace it and don't be ashamed! My dish was light, yet spicy and good to the last slurped-up drop of broth. The little neck clams, which are like the aforementioned steamers, only smaller, and in a much thicker shell, were sweet and rich. The mussels were full of flavor, the cod was infused by the spicy broth and the lobster was tender and sweet. I am usually a purist and I like my lobster in drawn butter or served cold, dressed lightly in mayonnaise in a roll. There are a few exceptions, including a lobster dish Mark cooked once, served with a vanilla sauce, which was absolutely divine. This night was also a departure from my norm; I thoroughly enjoyed the meat, dipped in that spicy bouillabaisse broth.
Our weather was delightful, in the mid 80s with a great sea breeze. We only had one morning of rain and that enabled us to enjoy a guilt-free trip to the Atlantic Spice Company, where I stocked up on smoked salt and Bolivian rose salt along with other unusual items, which worth every hassle, inevitably makes me susceptible to a search at the airport (I swear it is oregano from Madagascar!).
While I would not trade my life in Mississippi for anything, it is incredibly hard to live far from those you love. I am tearing up just thinking of all the laughs and new memories, how fast my nieces will grow before I see them next, and how much I cherish my parents as together we grow old. When I look back on this vacation, years from now, I will likely remember these meals, not only because of the fine food, but mostly because of the stories we created and will tell for years to come.