Sunday, February 14, 2010

Moules Normandes; Aoli

Happy Valentines Day!

Okay, okay. I think you know enough of my character to know that I am NOT a huge fan of Valentine's day. It's nice and all, but who needs chalky, unpleasant heart-shaped candies, and greeting cards with canned sentiment? Not me, for sure. Valentine's Day for me usually carried the same dread as Friday the 13th--even when I wasn't single, something horrible would invariably happen and the day would go completely wrong.

Once I met Husband J, though, Valentines Day settled down, and bad things stopped happening. I learned to sit back and enjoy the day, rather than dread it, and we began a tradition of staying in, and cooking fun meals to celebrate the day. (Unusual presents, too--Husband J got me a much-coveted bottle of L'heure Bleue, while I got him a copy of BrĂ¼tal Legend, a heavy metal themed video game starring Jack Black. That's love!)

For tonight's dinner, I really wanted to go all-out to make up for my slacking lately, what with the storm, the trip, and the simplistic dishes I've been making for the past few weeks. I ambitiously set my sights on Duck a l'orange, only to run into a snag--there is no duck to be had in the city. Even my faithful Eastern Market butcher doesn't stock poultry! So, stranded at the Whole Foods, Husband J requested mussels, which were in stock. I knew that there were five--count 'em, five--recipes for mussels in the Les Halles Cookbook that needed to be gotten through, so I agreed. We picked up a bag of mussels, and headed home to cook.

Now, mussels plus Tony Bourdain does not equal sweet harmony. In fact, he admits in the cookbook that he has "famously frightened away hundreds of people from eating mussels." For those who haven't read Kitchen Confidential, there's a segment in the book in which Tony explains some of the less savory kitchen practices in restaurants, and how that resolves into what he will or will not eat when dining out. While he grants that he is not bothered by recycling bread baskets from one table to another (me neither, I'll eat the bread too), he does provide some basic tips about what not to eat at restaurants. These tips include "never order fish on Monday," "no hollandaise," "don't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms," "no swordfish," (three foot long parasitic worms, anyone?) "no well-done steak" and, most damning, never eat mussels in a restaurant, unless you see how they handle and store them. Mussels need to drain while being held for cooking, and be picked through carefully to ensure each mussel is healthy and alive before throwing them into the pot. But, as Tony explains, this type of handling is rare because mussels are so easy to cook and sell at a premium. Toss them in a pot, and $24.95 later, you're making a sweet profit with time left over to chiffonade your mise. The effects of eating bad mussels are dire, he explains, using such phrases as "shitting like a mink." I prefer not to spend my Valentine's evening in such a position, so I resolved to handle the mussels as carefully as possible, first storing them in a colander above a bowl in the fridge, so that they could drain properly.

The best thing to eat with mussels is, of course, fries with mayonnaise in the true Belgian style. I wasn't about to try deep frying myself some fries just yet (no Valentine grease fires please) so I whussed out with some frozen fries. But I determined to make some garlic aoli (in the "miscellaneous meez" section of the book) for dipping. The recipe calls for four garlic cloves, half a cup of olive oil, and salt, pulsed in the food processor. Once pulsed, add an egg yolk, and leave the processor running while another half cup of olive oil is trickled in.

Easy, right? Well it ended up in a runny, grainy, separated mess.

Blech. Please pay no attention to my "claw hand" there, I was trying to steady the oily mess and take a picture at the same time.

I'm no stranger to mayonnaise mishaps, having tried making it myself before, but I was pretty disappointed in the nasty mess I'd made with the aoli. Hopefully the mussels wouldn't have the same result...

I started the mussels by frying bacon, the way every dish should start, in my opinion.

Next, I melted a ton of butter in a pot, and fried chopped shallots until soft.

Then, I added sliced mushrooms and cubed apple, and sauteed them until they released their liquid and softened.

The recipe called for calvados (French apple brandy), but instead I used what we had on hand--apple whiskey from Leopold Bros. in Colorado. Then I added cream, salt and pepper, and brought the whole thing to a boil.

As the sauce simmered, it was time to go through the mussels. I hauled the colander out of the fridge, and went through the pile, mussel by mussel, checking which were tightly closed (good) and which were gaping open (bad). The open ones were thrown out, while the closed ones got tossed into the pot and cooked in the sauce until they opened up. I probably threw out about half of the mussels, which sounds wasteful until you think of the phrase "shitting like a mink" and what it signifies.

At this point I had a problem--the recipe didn't say what to do with the bacon that I had fried at the beginning of the evening. So, I dumped the bacon bits over the cooking mussels. Once all the mussels opened, I dumped them into a bowl and served them with the fries, and a loaf of homemade bread.

The verdict? Oh my god. The mussels were delicious and sweet, and I was happy that I had picked through them so carefully. But the best part was the sauce, which was creamy and smoky from the bacon and whiskey. I was actually happy when all the mussels were gone, so I could soak bits of bread in the sauce and lap it all up. Husband J and I actually ignored our fries to focus on the mussels and sauce, which was really something. Husabnd J said that this was definitely one of his favorite meals, in that it was more of a casual, "pub food" meal than most of the ones I have cooked so far. All in all, it was a great Valentines Day meal, and more than made up for my aoli fail.

Lessons Learned: Always handle and store your mussels carefully, and toss the open ones before you cook. Aoli is freaking hard. Pay attention to what's to be done with the bacon. Homemade mussels and homemade bread are much better than frozen french fries.

Next Week: Ehhh I'm not sure... I'll think on it.

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