Monday, April 21, 2008

Cape Cod Sandwich

Zola: This story really needs no introduction. But I should at least introduce you to Sharon, who has unwittingly become the Patron Saint of Food Chains--it was through Sharon that we met Whitney and her fine food from Guam; Sharon & her partner Pat have donated BACON bumper stickers (that we'll give to anyone who writes a story for the blog & wants one); Sharon & Pat visited us for a meal & brought about 4 dozen fresh oysters (which, okay, technically it wasn't part of the blog but it was a kick ass meal); and she wrote this awesome story which produced an awesome sandwich.

Sharon: My family has been going to Cape Cod ever since I was born. There is a photo of me at six months old, crawling around the beach. I’ve been a beach person ever since. My parents built a house on the Cape in the early ‘90s, and my dad still lives there today. I try to visit once a year.

During one visit—let’s say it was around 1994—my husband at the time and I cruised around the mid-Cape one day with my folks, with some purpose in mind that I have long forgotten. What I do remember is that after we had built up a healthy sea-air appetite (it makes me ravenous, how about you?), we stopped at what is fondly called a “fish shack” near Yarmouth. The building was classic Cape Cod—unassuming wood building sitting right on the docks, the inevitable lobster buoy and crab pot decorations, sea gulls providing the background music. The restaurant was run by a shy family, and because it was after the lunch rush, we practically had the place to ourselves; therefore, the space had a quiet, almost reverent atmosphere.

Our order was obvious: fish sandwich, french fries, and a Coke. We sipped on our icy Cokes to get our blood sugar leveled and read about lobsters on our paper placemats while waiting for our meals, which came out after not too long of a wait.

More than a dozen years later, I can still recall picking up that sandwich and taking the first bite. Soft yet substantial bun with a crisped, slightly caramelized interior surface. Crunch of iceberg lettuce and the tangy-smooth burst of tartar sauce. Then the fish. We swore that the family must have plucked a sole fish out of the water just after we ordered—it was that fresh. My memory goes a little dim at the exact constitution of the coating—but I can say that it was neither overly breaded nor bare fleshed, nor was there any of that “Cajun seasoning” that often wrecks a fish sandwich. The fish was allowed to speak for itself.

We ate our lunches, oohing and ahhing and “oh my godding” the whole time. It’s not like we hadn’t eaten fish sandwiches before—it is a staple lunch in New England—but we had just experienced the new gold standard. The shy waitress took in our raving with equanimity and provided no effusive response, just the check.

A couple of years later, on another visit, my husband and I were trekking around the Cape when we decided to find that fish shack again. We were getting pretty hungry and weren’t quite sure where the restaurant was located, but we felt that our strong memory of that fish sandwich would guide our way. It was like a beacon. Unfortunately, after going up and down every little side road in the upper and mid-Cape, we realized that we weren’t going to find the place. We gave up and grabbed lunch at some forgettable place, and headed back to my parents. We asked them, “Where is that fish shack where we had those amazing sandwiches?” “Oh, they closed. The family wanted to retire from the business.” Tragedy. I still have not fully recovered from the loss.

I have never found a fish sandwich as good as that time. In fact, they often fall short by epic proportions. My advice to the fish sandwich makers:

1. Use the freshest sole (no salmon or other alternative, please!) –don’t relegate your day-old or previously frozen stuff to the sandwich.
2. Keep it simple. No cayenne or paprika or “blackening”
3. The breading needs to be light, but substantial enough to provide a crisped container for the hot, juicy, tender fish inside.
4. Make your own tartar sauce and make it with high-quality ingredients.
5. Iceberg lettuce is the only lettuce that should go on this (or any other) sandwich. Do not let romaine or Bibb (or, God help me, sprouts) touch a bun.
6. The bun is extremely important. It can’t be airy, mushy, hard, doughy, too big or too small. It should be soft, substantial, and have that toasted interior. No cornmeal or sesame seeds, please.
7. French fries and a Coke are de rigueur, even if you never drink soda.

Zola: So guess what Guy got from my parents for his birthday? Oh hello, deep fryer, you naughty thing!
We went down to Fisherman's Terminal to pick up some sole and saw these tasty little squids. We decided we could substitute them for the french fries and Sharon wouldn't mind too much. Also, when we got the cokes, we thought, "you know what goes with coke? Rum!" Yes, I know it's not strictly in keeping with the story, but when better is there to start drinking hard liquor than when you've got a vat of oil cooking away at 375 degrees?
Guy let the sole soak in buttermilk for a few hours, then dredged the pieces of fish in egg then a mixture of flour, bread crumbs, salt & pepper before popping them in the deep fryer.
1/2c. mayo
1 1/2 tsp. finely chopped onion
1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
2 tsp. dry mustard powder
2 pinches of white pepper
dash of cayenne
Now we must go astringent our faces.


Tiki said...

I heartily applaud the squid and rum as a way to make the dish a little more sophisticated and party-hardy.

I will be going to the Cape in a month, and can't wait to tuck into one of these (if I can find a gluten-free bun)!

Zola said...

Yay! I just knew it was the right thing to do.
For those of you who don't need a gluten free bun, we found a good (hamburger) bun at Whole (Paycheck)Foods--just the right size, soft, substantial & seedless.
I know not of gluten free buns. Good luck on your search, Tiki. Maybe we should try making some?

Winky said...

Great story, Tiki & Zola. Bacon is second only to Dungeness Crab at the top of my favorite food list... Ahem, Bacon bumper sticker - I forgot to request one...

Zola said...

Winky, I'm sorry I'm seeing your request so late--how do I get a bumper sticker to you? If you send your address to our address, we'll put one in the mail for you!