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Spontaneous lunch

June 15, 2010

I was going to write about ginger today, but that will have to wait, because I need to tell you what I had for lunch. Hint: it cost less than $6, required no utensils to eat, and was elegant enough to serve company, except I don’t have a lot of friends who would have wanted to eat it (maybe I need to make some new friends). And here are some pictures of my walk on the beach this morning to keep you company while you guess.

It was a cool, drizzly day, a relief after all those 80-plus days in the last couple of weeks, and somehow this felt like the perfect time to finally find the beach and go walking on it. Sure enough, there it was at the end of Furnace Brook Parkway, practically deserted. I stepped out of the car and inhaled: yes, there was that clean, fresh seawater smell. Gray waves rolled slowly into shore; a sparrow hopped among the rocks and discarded shells, startling away as I approached.

This is not a sandy, barefoot kind of beach. But that’s not really my thing anyway. I like rocks and shells and privacy, and there are days when I like startling amounts of gray, in as many shades and textures as possible.

There are also, apparently, days when the mere sight of the ocean awakens in my belly an intense craving for mussels. And this is where I need to make different friends, because a pound of fresh Prince Edward Island mussels, delivered to the supermarket just this morning, may only cost 1.99 a pound on sale, but they come in bags of 2 to 3 pounds, and Jacob doesn’t eat shellfish, and most everybody else I know is squeamish about eating squishy orange things that come in black inscrutable shells.

There are exceptions, of course. I think I got my taste for mussels from sharing plates of them with my friend Kelsey at Weia Teia, one of the nicer restaurants in Oberlin. Though it wasn’t cheap, I ended up eating there several times, due to birthdays and parental visits and dates, and every time but once, I ordered some kind of fish — the Midwest offers limited options for a New England girl needing a seafood fix, but Weia Teia never disappointed. They don’t seem to offer the mussel appetizer anymore, but I remember a light-colored broth, flavored with chiles and lemongrass and thickened with coconut milk. I also remember eating mussels cooked in tomatoes and saffron, though, so I’m not sure which is accurate.

Imagining variations on both sets of flavors, I drove from the beach to the market. I picked up a purple-mesh sack of mussels and crossed the store in search of a loaf of cheap but interesting bread to sop up the liquid. Passing the fish counter a second time, I was flagged down by the man who’d just handed me the mussels; the person right behind me in line had wanted all the mussels they had, which turned out to be none, because I’d gotten the last of them. The fish man speculated that I could probably get a pretty good price if I offered to sell mine to the other customer, but I don’t know… mussel scalping? It would have made a good story, but I was more interested in a good lunch.

Armed with the mussels (4.40) and a loaf of day-old, non-seeded scali bread (1.65), I headed home to consult How to Cook Everything, generally my first reference for unfamiliar fish. Mark Bittman advises leaving the mussels in a pot of cold water, under a slowly running tap, for half an hour; I wasn’t in a hurry, so I did this while I continued to think about recipe ideas. (Or read completely irrelevant food blog posts, I forget which.) One point of advice: don’t do this rinse in a dark-colored nonstick pot. When I went to retrieve the mussels, I almost missed the last two or three lurking in the depths, because their shells were the same color as the pot lining.

I ultimately decided to go with the Basic Steamed Mussels recipe; it used stuff I already had, and after rinsing the mussels and pulling off the “beard” (threadlike filaments that the mussel uses to cling to surfaces — mine were relatively beardless, though), I didn’t want to spend longer than 15 minutes actually cooking them. I’m pretty sure this was the right choice, because the finished mussels were completely satisfying, tender and slightly sweet, fragrant with saffron, but tasting mostly of the sea — exactly what I had in mind.

I wanted a wide, shallow bowl to eat the mussels out of, something like a soup plate or pasta bowl, so it would be easy to sop up the extra broth with slices of toasted bread. A pie plate worked fine, and after happily slurping my way through one serving, I decided that — while I could save the other half for dinner, or lunch tomorrow — they could not possibly taste as delicious as they did just then. Call me a glutton, but I would rather overdose on something delicious at its best, then save it for later when flavor and texture will undoubtedly have faded, simply out of some notion of restraint. And for the record, I didn’t end up eating dinner; 45 mussels is plenty of food for a day, no matter how you eat them.

Basic Steamed Mussels, à la Mark Bittman

You don’t need to add much liquid because as the mussels open, they will release their own salty, seawatery liquid, essentially making their own broth. Everything else is just to perk up the flavor a little, but the mussels don’t need much help, so don’t overdo it.

3 Tbsp. olive oil

4 cloves garlic

1 medium onion, sliced (I used a small onion and a shallot)

1/2 c. dry white wine

1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley (I used thyme — better the wrong fresh herb than something dried, right?)

Mussels, cleaned (Bittman says at least 4 pounds of large ones, but I had about 2.5, and that worked fine with the stated amounts of other ingredients.)

Pinch saffron (optional but highly recommended)

1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat, then add garlic and onion/shallot and cook until onion softens.

2. Add wine, parsley/other herb, and mussels, cover the pot, and increase heat. Steam until mussels open, 8-10 minutes (mine were done in about 6; M.B. says to shake the pot frequently, which I did a couple of times, but I’m not sure why, and it seems like you could break the mussels if you got too excited). Transfer mussels to serving bowl with a slotted spoon; strain some cooking liquid over them, if desired.

Serves about 1 person per pound of mussels, unless you are a glutton. In which case, serves 1 person.

Extra credit reading: More information about cooking mussels, Mussels are Seafood Watch approved!

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One comment

  1. […] Bethany, of Up and Out. […]



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