May 23rd, 1967, my family set sail from Naples, Rome aboard the SS Independence. We were returning to the United States permanently.
Two days later on the 25th, our ship docked in Lisbon Portugual to refuel and stock supples before the final leg in our transatlantic voyage home. I know the specifics because my father threw nothing away. He kept the ships log, itenerary, meal cards, and my crayon-scribbled notes from the entire cruise.
We were in Lisbon for a full day while the crew scrambled to ready the ship for a 14 day crossing. My father didn't want to stray far from the ship, so we mostly wandered around the old part of town that skirted the port. I don't rememeber much about Lisbon except the old cobblestone streets and tall cracking buildings. What I do remember about Lisbon is that I saw, tasted, and ate my very first fresh clam. I ate anything and everything as a kid. Those clams fascinated me. I suppose that was the beginning of my love affair with all fresh shellfish. I have never looked back.
Yesterday, I stopped in the Lexington Seafood Company to place an order for fresh Blue Point oysters to have on Thanksgiving day next week. There were a few people ahead of me, so I perused the small space. They had some cool stuff dotted around the store. I immediately grabbed a bottle of Blue Crab Bay Co. Sting Ray Spicey(sic) Bloody Mary Mixer with ocean clam juice. That store was singing my song. I made my way to counter to place my order when I spotted the most beautiful littleneck clams poking out from under the shaved ice in the deli cooler. "There's no need to reserve oysters.", he said as I stood transfixed on the clams. "We'll have plenty, trust me." Uh, ok. "I'll need two dozen, half in the shell and half shucked.", I said. "No problem, just give me a call that morning.", he replied. Great. I bought two dozen littleneck clams and made my way home.
I adore the cuisine of the Iberian Pennisula. Spanish cuisine owns me. Last night, with a nod to Portuguese Cataplana and Carne de Porco a Alentejam, I decided to combine and interpret both with a clam and pork stew.
I prepped the vegetables and aromatics well in advance by thinly slicing red potatoes, garlic, onions, grape tomatoes, green bell peppers, and roasted bell peppers. I slit open italian sausages to release them from their casings and slid them into the refirgerator next to the gorgeous clams resting on a shaved ice pillow.
Mise en place. Done.
On his way home from work, Michael picked up an early released bottle of George Duboef Beaujolais Nouveau, so we sat in the parlor and sampled it for quite some time before dinner. Nice.
When it was to time to eat, I cranked a saute pan to high heat, drizzled it with olive oil, and sauteed the sausage meat with smoked paprika, saffron, salt, and pepper until crispy. I tossed in the vegetables to release their liquids, deglaze the pan, and caramelize before adding enough stock to steam open the clams. I wasn't going for a true stew. I wanted sauced clams.
When the vegetables were tender and the tomatoes had collapsed, I tumbled in the littleneck clams, clamped a lid over the pan, and let the clams simmer and steam just enough to open without overcooking. It smelled heavenly.
Once the clams opened and reached to the sky, I plated them in large pasta bowls, poured the pan juices around the clams, scattered the vegetables randomly, and sprinkled hand torn parsley over the top. Michael made toast to sop.
The highly seasoned paprika-laced pork sausage totally transformed the sweet clams. The crumbled sausage meat worked its way into the clam shells, mixing hearty saltiness with delicate briny clam juice. The plump clams exploded with sweetness. The tomatoes, peppers, and onions added soft bites while the shaved sliced garlic snapped with assertiveness. It was crazy good. Aromatic. Light. Clammy. The broth was drinkable. I know. I did. Who needed bread?
I have Lisbon, Portugal to thank for my clam love.
I had no idea, back then, that one day in Lisbon would forever feed my soul.