Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Steaming Bowlful of Memory

There are certain foods for me that border on the Proustian.  I refer to the involuntary memory flashes that come with a whiff of grassy leeks, pungent fennel or the briny aroma and freshness of a steaming bowl of mussels.

A common fact about taste is that 80% of it is from what we smell when we eat.  Thus, a lame night out would consist of dinner with a head cold or a wine tasting surrounded by guests doused in perfume and essence de Marlboro.  But, the aggressive, vibrant and fresh aromas of steamed mussels can literally turn heads as a deep, crowded bowl of shiny black shells wafts by, leaving your eyes at half-mast and giving the feeling of standing on the dock in summer or nestled into a hard-backed wooden booth at the Union Oyster House in Boston.

My recurring Belgian reverie usually begins with me anchored at the back bar of Monk's Cafe in Philly.  With their five types of steamed mussels, skinny hand-cut fries and accompanying home-made bourbon mayonnaise, they don't get any better or any fresher in a place where every table can be seen with a stainless steel  potful.  With hundreds of beer choices from around the world, I've never spent less than three hours on a meal there, very often four or more.

There are certain ingredients that absolutely adore mussels.  Leeks and fennel are brothers in arms for a more traditional marriage.  Curry and cilantro for a slightly more exotic.  Never is fresh chopped parsley a more crucial finishing touch than when you lift the lid on a finished pot of steamed mussels.  As the vapor rises up through the freshly opened shells, the heady aroma of garlic and aromatic vegetables co-mingles with the precious release of clean seawater picking up the grassy aroma of the parsley and melds it into a dizzying savory steambath.

My grandparents always took us to an American Restaurant down the street in Lawrence Park, PA that was called the Sawmill Inn.  My grandfather religiously ordered the mussels as an appetizer which arrived to the table in a bowl large enough to toss salad.  As we kids dipped our fried shrimp and French fries in cocktail sauce, he sat quietly and savored each and every tender morsel, dunking his crusty bread and sipping his long-neck Reading.

Over the years, I've flirted with the different types of mussels out there to try.  The dense and meaty, almost always pre-frozen New Zealand green-lip kiwi mussels.  The poorly named Mediterranean mussels of Washington State with their incredible almost 1:1 ratio of meat to shell and extraordinarily plump and creamy flesh.  White water, rope-cultured mussels from around Narrangansett Bay in Rhode Island or the often bottom cultured Maine "blue" mussels are in the top echelon of sweetness and flavor.  And the well-known Prince Edward Island (PEI) variety, which rank in my top three for flavor.  Not always the meatiest, but some of the most flavorful you can cook and eat.
Another bonus feature for me when supping on mussels is their versatility as both a meal and an accompaniment, mainly to various beverages.  Mussels au natural cry for cold, fragrant beer from Belgium or France, while mussels in herbs, white wine, butter and lemon sing with a minerally white wine from the Alto Adige or Muscadet.  Back to our curry recipe, dry rieslings are in good company while smoked mussels with dill, shallot and lemon could pair nicely with a dry white sparkling wine.  Bread is almost always in good order, unless you go the Moules Frites route, those skinny, salty fries we talked about earlier that the European community blessed us with centuries ago.

You see, we should take some time to appreciate something as simple yet so sensual as fresh steamed mussels.  They're not fussy or trendy.  They're not expensive or elitist.  They're accessible, delicious and fun.  Why don't more people serve them, I wonder.

Steamed Brussels Mussels for Two
2-3# Fresh Mussels
1 stalk of chopped leek, white portion
1/2 bulb or 1 full stalk of fresh, diced fennel
1 minced shallot
1 minced garlic clove
2-3 oz. good olive oil
2 diced tomato concasse (without seeds or skin)
1 Tablespoon freshly chopped flat leaf parsley (Italian parsely)
1 1/2 cup of dry white wine (or one 12 oz. bottle Belgian wheat beer)
1 cup clam juice

Cooking:  Clean the "beards", or seaweed, from the mussels.  Tap each one and discard those that don't close.  Warm up your olive oil, leeks, fennel, garlic and shallot in a deep pot over medium heat.  As the vegetables begin to "hiss", add your mussels and turn up the heat to high.  Cover tightly for one minute.   Lift the lid and add the white wine and clam juice, replacing the lid to steam.  In about 5 minutes, check to see that the shells have all steamed open.  Toss in the chopped tomato and parsley just before serving.  Serving in the same pot keep the mussels from falling out of their shells and also keeps them hot.  Be sure to ladle the vegetables and broth into each bowl and serve with toasty, warm bread or skinny french fries.

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