Like many folks, I spent my junior year in college abroad. The obvious choice for me was France, considering my French Canadian background and the fact that I'd been studying French since seventh grade.
I arrived in Bordeaux without a clue about living on my own, cooking for myself, or what it would be like to be so far from my family.
They were back home in Los Angeles. And although I had spent my first two years in college in Santa Cruz, three-hundred and fifty miles is nothing compared to the vast stretch of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean that now separated us.
It was heartbreakingly hard.
My homesickness was overwhelming throughout the fall. Christmas was the turning point for me, and it had everything to do with food.
My utterly crazy boyfriend from Santa Cruz was visiting. It was my first Christmas away from my family. The way I coped with the separation was to cook up a Christmas like I would have at home for the two of us -- luscious rare beef and ultra-rich Yorkshire pudding.
I'll share those recipes when it is seasonally more appropriate!
This is all to say that cooking is what turned my whole year around. It opened up everything. I had cooked side by side with my mother, but having lived in the dormatories the first two years away from home, I had very little experience cooking for myself.
I ventured into my new cooking life with only a paperback edition of the Joy of Cooking and a lot of enthusiasm.
I remember attempting soup for the first time and ending up with a flavorless puddle after three hours. I had so much to learn.
I was adventurous. Chicken Kiev, anyone? It's warm! Let's have gazpacho!
Eating in Bordeaux was wonderous. Walking to the corner boulangerie for a buttery pain au chocolat that would leave tiny flakes on your lips was the stuff of great romance.
Riding on the back of the baker's motorcycle out to the coast for oysters and wine made from grapes grown just around the bend was rather romantic too.
One of my housemates in Bordeaux was a Frenchman named Patrick. He introduced me to rillettes from his home-town, LeMans. The only place to get proper rillettes! Or so says Patrick. My love for the fatty, earthy pork is as strong today as it was after my first dip into the little crock that he had brought home for us.
He also taught me how to make mussels. Steamed mussels as good as at any French bistro in this country or his. The simplicity of it is impressive -- a little garlic and some shallots, white wine, parsely and mussels. And ten minutes. Just ten.
What puzzles me is why it has taken me until just a couple weeks ago to recreate these mussels in this country. I'd see the shiny black mollusks at the fish market and feel, get this -- intimidated!
I'd absolutely forgotten the ease of their preparation. I can't let any more time pass without sharing this recipe with you, in case you, dear readers, have been suffering from the same sort of mental confusion.
I eat moules frîtes in restaurants frequently, and those preparations have nothing on these. My sister ordered the very dish at Bouchon just a few weeks ago and these were on par with those without a doubt.
I don't make frîtes at home, and if I am going to be honest right now I am a little bit sick of them. My preference is to serve them with a crusty, chewy loaf of bread, a green salad and an exceedingly dry Riesling.
The evening I made these steamed mussels, I was feeling particularly extravagant and actually served them with chanterelle toasts -- decadent and sublime.
I was so tickled by the success of the mussels that I gave them another go a couple of nights ago. To keep my parents and sister happy, I substituted clams for half of the mussels. The preparation is exactly the same and the results just as pleasing.
In Los Angeles, you can pick up mussels at most markets, but I found the mussels from the Hollywood Farmer's Market to be especially nice, as were those at McCall's in Los Feliz.
The mussels will need cleaning. Be sure to give them a good scrub and to de-beard them. De-bearding just means to yank the fibrous strands out of the mussels -- very easy, I swear.
You may be surprised by how much garlicky sea broth you get using only half a cup of white wine. The mussels release a lot of liquid, which you will be very happy about -- the more briny liquor the better! That's what the bread is for!
I've also been know to slurp it right out of the bowl.
Steamed Mussels with Garlic and Shallots
5 pounds black mussels (figure about a pound per person)
4 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
A handful or two of chopped parsley
Clean the mussels.
Melt the butter in a good sized heavy pot. Sauté the shallots and garlic over medium high heat until soft, about five minutes. Add the mussels and white wine. Turn heat up to high and cover. Cook for ten minutes, shaking the pot every few minutes. Check the mussels. They should be open. If not, give them a couple more minutes. At this point they really should all be open. Discard the few that may not be. Scatter parsley all over and serve in deep soup plates with plenty of broth.
Serves 4 to 5