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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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I received some terribly sad news last Friday morning. Julia Child, who could have had her own Omnimedia enterprise if she'd cared to, passed away. As I spent the morning remembering things I'd learned from her television show, I decided it would be fitting to make a dinner in her honor.

Even though we're moving next week and our kitchen is slowly being boxed away, I knew I'd be able to pull off a simple dinner. I also knew that whatever I made, it had to have at least some butter in the recipe to honor Julia. The mussels served at Hopleaf, a couple of glasses of leftover white wine and a desire for simple food inspired me to create an amazing dinner that wasn't nearly as high in fat as you might fear.

The recipe for the mussels is adapted from a recipe in Julia Child's The Way to Cook. If you like cookbooks chock-full of technique lessons, you may want to invest in this book.


Mussels Steamed in White Wine
1 medium yellow onion sliced very thinly
2 tablespoons of butter (real butter!)
1 large clove of garlic minced by hand or crushed in a press
2 cups (or more) of dry white wine or dry vermouth
A large handful of chopped fresh parsley or tarragon
2 pounds of fresh mussels (see below for cleaning instructions)

The easiest way to cut an onion thinly without losing a chunk of onion, or your finger: Cut the stem end of the onion. Draw the tip of your knife down the side of the onion and cut through the layers of papery-skin on the outside, then peel back those layers and tear away from the root end. Next, cut the onion in half lengthwise. Place the onion half flat side down on cutting board and slice it thinly widthwise. As you get close to the end of onion, hold onto the root end and cut as close as you can without cutting into the root. Do this with the other half of the onion and you should have two large handfuls of sliced onion.

Heat a stockpot to medium heat and add the butter. Once it's melted, add the onions and stir to coat them with butter. (If it doesn't seem like there is enough butter for the onions, you can either add some more butter or a tablespoon or so of olive oil. You want everything coated, but you don't need a puddle of oil.) Once the onions are mostly translucent, add the garlic and stir. Continue cooking on medium heat until you start smelling a nuttiness to the butter or the garlic or onions begin to brown. Now add the wine and the fresh herbs, cover, and bring to a boil. Once it is boiling, add the mussels and turn the heat up to high. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes and scoop the mussels into bowls. Keep the liquid in the pan and boil on high for 5-10 minutes uncovered to reduce the liquid and increase the flavor in the sauce. Pour the hot liquid over the mussels. Serve with crusty bread for dipping up the broth or watch as people drink the broth like soup.

If you just can't eat the butter, heat the wine, herbs, garlic, and sliced onions in the stock-pot over medium-low heat. Cover the pan and cook for 10-15 minutes until the onions seem very tender. Julia calls this a marinière.

*To clean the mussels:
The mussels may come already cleaned, or they may not. You can get a small plastic bristle brush to brush the dirt and barnacle bits off the shells, or you can rub them with plastic scrubby. You may notice that some of the mussels have a fuzzy bit sticking out of the shell. This is called a beard and isn't edible, so you'll want to grab hold of it and pull it out. Get a large bowl of water that is much larger than you think you'll need. You'll want to fill it with water that is just slightly cool to the touch. Add two handfuls of cornmeal to the water and as you wash off the mussels drop them in the bowl. Mussels live underground and they often ingest particles of sand and mud. This helps them digest, but it makes for unpleasant eating. Once you have cleaned the shells, let them sit in this water for about a half hour to an hour. Every fifteen minutes nudge the bowl gently to create small waves. This simulates their eating conditions and they'll hopefully spit out the sand and ingest cornmeal instead. When you're ready to add the mussels to the pot you'll want to reach in and remove the mussels by the handful. This will keep the sand in the bottom of the bowl and out of the cookpot.

A simple side dish is best served with mussels. Hopleaf serves a side of pomme frites but I doubt many people are up for deep-frying at home. I recommend serving some smashed potatoes. If you can boil water and you aren't afraid of carbs, this is right up your alley.

Herbed Smashed Potatoes
3 Yukon Gold potatoes (these have thinner skins and a waxy texture which will give you a creamy mash without having to add lots of butter)
3 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the potatoes into half-inch cubes. Add to a large pan of boiling water that has a large pinch of salt added to it. Cover but vent to prevent boil-overs and boil for 15-25 minutes. Once the pieces fall apart when pierced with a fork, drain the water and put the potatoes in a serving bowl. Add the butter and herbs to the potatoes and using the tines of a fork to smash and stir them, distributing the butter and herbs throughout the potatoes. Taste and then add salt and pepper.

With a fresh salad (arugula, cherry tomatoes, and a little cilantro go great together with a basic vinagrette) this is a fairly quick and complete meal. It takes an hour to clean the mussels but the rest of the meal takes less than 45 minutes to prepare. It's a very tasty, very simple, and very inexpensive dinner. No really -- mussels aren't expensive! That order of "mussels for one" with fries at Hopleaf is $10 plus tax and tip. At home, those mussels with smashed potatoes will cost you about $6 for the 2 pounds of mussels, $1.00 for butter, $1.50 for potatoes, $.25 for the onion, $.10 for the garlic, $1.50 for the herbs if you buy them in bulk, and 2 cups of leftover wine (you could use a beer if you prefer). So for $10.35 you've got mussels and potatoes for 4. With prices like this, you'll have money for beer. With food like this, your friends might bring the beer to you.


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Qwert / August 17, 2004 6:40 AM

What a woderful idea. I hope you lit a candle for Miss C.

Other than her being an excellent cook, one of the best things I loved about Julia Child is that she decided to be childfree. Yay! Lets hear it for someone who added culture to the world instead of another customer.

Shylo / August 17, 2004 9:29 AM

And she was a big, tall gal. There arent' too many of us on tv.

robin.. / August 17, 2004 9:58 AM

oh julia! requiem eternam! i need to say a few things here that i loved about her, in memoriam:

butter and wine, and the beauty of fine, simple ingredients that to me is the true alchemy of cooking, which will forever be la mode. that time on one episode of her show when she dropped the entire meal--i think it was a ham--on the floor right before carrying it to table...and she picked it up, put it back on the platter, and reminded her viewers that "only [we] know what happens in [our] kitchens." the subtle eye-rolling at her guest "chef"s microwave cookery.

she was an inspiration, a model for the _real_ joy of cooking, which is to know your materials, make your food with your hands, eat whatever you love (butter, duck fat, wine, bread, cheese, leeks, garlic, and herbs herbs herbs), drink with friends, and fear no ingredient.

eric f / August 17, 2004 11:06 AM

Her "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is still the best cookbook around for a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen. You can find them used all over the place. Volume two has the most ridiculous baguette recipe you will ever see; it's an afternoon for a long loaf of bread, but when that baby comes out of the oven, you can almost hear the ovation. And it's tasty too.

therese / August 17, 2004 11:58 AM

Where can I get good quality shellfish in chicago? I know there's that good fish market up on Montrose/Elson? What to look for as well so I do not poison myself or others? Where do you usually go? Love mussels. Great Recipe! Thank you! Love your weblog too!


Shylo / August 17, 2004 12:57 PM

I've had some good luck at Burhop's on North. There's one in Wilmette, as well.

robin.. / August 17, 2004 1:20 PM

why eric's nice to see you under better circumstances. did you read those NY times (i think...there was a promo for some paper when i was unemployed and i got 4 weeks free) articles about the woman who set out to cook every dish in MtAoFC in a year? she did it in, like, 54 weeks as it turned out, and blogged the whole thing. it sounded AMAZING. i was just sorry i didn't think to do it first.

Cinnamon / August 17, 2004 2:33 PM

I'm glad I'm not the only Julia fan. She was an amazing woman and I've learned a great deal from her. She has several books and I think each one can serve someone depending on skills.

Where to buy fish? The Fish Guy seems to be the most reccomended place in the city to get finfish and shellfish. Avoid fish that smells horribly strongly fishy (means it's old) and avoid fish that smells like chemicals(means it's been preserved) and definitely avoid fish that smells like bleach. And don't be afraid to ask to smell something before it gets wrapped up to purchase. The butcher/fish-monger will probably put it on paper and lean over the counter toward you instead of just hand you a piece of fish, but if they balk at letting you smell it go somewhere else. Don't be afraid, it might strike up a dialogue and they may tell you something you didn't know.

I purchased the mussels for this recipe at Whole Foods. They are convenient and the mussels were just fine and yes I smelled them. The person behind the counter didn't raise an eyebrow at all, just leaned forward, let me take a whiff and when I said "fine" they were wrapped and I was ready to go.

Jessa / August 18, 2004 10:09 AM

(That story about Julia Child dropping food on the floor and using it anyway is a myth:

robin.. / August 18, 2004 11:06 AM

oh man, i so wanted to believe it...well, she was still great.

Shylo / August 18, 2004 11:46 AM

Robin, that was Julie Powell of the Julie-Julia blog.

jbelle / August 23, 2004 12:28 PM

I was delayed at O'Hare watching airport TV when I heard. I threw my hand to my chest, gasped out loud and desperately looked around for someone to share in my grief. Curious looks, McDonald's wrappers. Thought of butter all by myself. Thanks for sharing and cooking!


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