Friday, April 13, 2012

Eating Omily: Fan-Sea Food, or, Why Cooking Mussels Mariniere Doesn't Make Me An Elitist (At Least in France)

First of all, I'd like to say that it's alright if you don't like seafood. Really, it is, because, seafood doesn't like you, either.

Apparently when a shark attacks a person, their attacking/eating behavior is starkly different from when a shark attacks a typical prey animal, such as a seal. Have you seen those Animal Planet clips? The seal is pretty much gone in one bite. But a person, though likely to lose a chunk of flesh, or something important like a leg, will then be abandoned. Blood on the water, a good-sized meal basically unable to defend itself, and the shark...swims off! The scientists' conclusion? Fish don't like landfood.

For those of us who love eating something that tastes like a warm day on the beach smells, who appreciate the tenderest animal flesh around, who are big omega three, calcium, and zinc fans, you are going to love this Farmer's Market recipe, and everything you need to make it is out there at the Union Square Farmer's Market right now. If you can't make it today, go tomorrow or Monday!

Mussels Mariniere actually is a great metaphor for the difference between American food culture, and French food culture. In America, this is a fancy-shcmancy dinner time dish, impressive date food (assuming your date doesn't have a dislike for the taste of those who dwell in another realm in common with our friend the great white...and if he or she does, you've got to ask yourself if there's anything else they share...)

In France...well, in France you can order it at every little sidewalk cafe you can find, and it will come with French Fries. This is their fast food. It's cheap, easy to make, and, guess what? Astoundingly delicious and healthy! At least when compared to a burger or chicken fingers...

in other words, for us in the Land of the Free, it's a cheat. No one will fail to be impressed with this dish, and it is as foolproof as they come.

So, start by buying some mussels, and yes, your Farmer's Market has them. They'll tell you to allot a pound per person, but if they're generous with their pounds (and they should be, for reasons I'll get to in a moment) a pound per two people is sufficient. My mussels hauled in from the cold waters of Long Island just hours before ran me $3/pound.

Take your mussels home, and put them in a bowl in your fridge if it's not dinner time. You can leave them like that (don't add water! Fresh water will kill them!) for one day if shopping and cooking feels like too much.

When you're ready, put the bowl of mussles to one side of the sink, pull a trash can over, and start de-bearding them. That funny hairy/seaweedy thing on some of them is the beard; you can grasp it and tear down sharply and it'll come right off. Give them a rinse and scrub under cold running water, and put them in another bowl as you go.

This is important: if you encounter any that are open, knock or tap on the shell. If the shell doesn't close up tight of its own accord, toss it. If I'm not sure if it's closing or not, I'll close it myself and see if it stays that way. If it does, I'll throw it in with the live ones, but I'm sure there are those who would tell you to be more cautious. Since a couple dead ones are inevitably going to be found in every batch, when you pay for a pound, your monger should give you more than a pound, to compensate for that fact.
Here are my ingredients! That is what a generous pound (dead ones already removed) looks like.

Leave your cleaned (closed) mussels on the counter for a moment, and pull out a big saute pan. I strongly recommend stainless steel as the mussel shells could scratch anything else. Melt a tablespoon or two of butter, and add between half and one chopped onion, and couple cloves of sliced or chopped garlic. I added a few ramps (sharply garlicky wild leeks that pop up in Farmer's Markets this time of year) and a few cremini mushrooms I bought at the market, too. Some people use shallots instead of onion. They're milder than onions, and traditionally they're what the French use, but they're too expensive for me when an onion cooked with patience is plenty mild, soft, and sweet.

This is also important: Do Not add ANY salt to your saute, no matter how much of a salt lover you are! I'll get to why in a moment.
Nom nom nom...

When your saute is delicious enough to eat on it's own, add just enough white wine to cover the pan in a very thin layer. This white wine is going to steam the mussels. You may think you need more, a quarter inch certainly! No, you don't, for the same reason you don't need salt. Let the wine come up to a simmer (feel free to crank the heat up till it does, and then back down)
This much white wine. No more.

Add your mussels, give the pan a shake, and get out the bowl or bowls you intend to serve the mussels in. Set those right next to the pan. As each mussel opens, indicating it's dead and cooked, retrieve it from the pan (fingers are fine, they aren't that hot) and place it in one of the bowls. Doing it this way ensures each mussel is perfectly (that is to say, very lightly) cooked. Now, don't start snatching mussels the minute you see the tiniest crack in their armor. Watch for the muscle holding the shell closed to release. It will yawn widely open.
You'll notice something funny happening as your muscles steam open: there is more liquid in your pan as you go, not less. This is because each of those mussels is carrying a mouthful of filtered, mineral-rich sea water, and as they cook and open, that precious cargo will be released. You'll end up with a fragrant, heavily salted broth of mussel-scented sea water, white wine, butter, and aromatics, and of course, that is why we make this dish in the first place.

You may find there are a couple mussels in the pan that just aren't opening several minutes after you've pulled all the others out. These guys were dead when they hit the pan. They won't open, and further, you don't want them to. Toss them.

You can let your broth simmer and reduce if you'd like, but reducing it will make it saltier. Some people add heavy cream, not only for richness, but because it helps to mask some of the saltiness. You don't want just a drizzle of sauce on your mussels, you want a bowl full of broth and mussels, and you'll want some crusty Farmer's Market Bread toasting right about now so it's hot and ready to absorb those absurdly delicious juices.

Pour the broth over the bowls of mussels, put the toasted bread on a plate, pour the wine you steamed the mussels with into glasses, and light some candles. The easiest way to eat these guys is to use an empty mussel shell to scoop the meat away from other mussel shells.

So yes, not kidding. $3, plus the cost of odds and ends: a splash of wine, a single onion, a couple garlic cloves, and fifteen minutes (half an hour if it takes you a while to clean the muscles and you throw a salad together on the side) to a fancy schmancy seafood dinner.

And, these animals are alive right up until you cook them: pretty much hibernating from the cold they've been kept in from the moment they were hauled from the ocean. I can't promise there's not a moment of suffering between waking up from the warmth, and the hot steam killing them...but this is a bivalve we're talking about. Its experience of suffering is pretty minimalist. Mussels are abundant, and are almost always farmed sustainably, so both wild-caught and farmed mussels are a sustainable and low to no suffering meal. Win.


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