Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mussels: Delighting the Senses

It was one of those defining moments of motherhood, an image of my children that will stay with me through the years: my kids, olive oil dripping from their chins and elbows, faces greasy and smiling, a platter of discarded mussel shells the only remains of what was dinner. I watched, mouth agape, as they used empty mussel shells to slurp up the remaining broth as though they were weary travelers at a desert oasis. 

I was not alone in my amusement that day; the owner of the restaurant laughed and in her native Italian (translated by our waiter) reminisced about the joy of discovering a new taste for the first time. She was pleased to see the restaurant's youngest patrons excitedly and loudly devour a serving of mussels faster than a football team after a Summer scrimmage.

I am a foodie, and I make no apologies for it. I love a good plate of food. I love a good photograph of food. I spend hours perusing recipes, planning meals, gazing at photographs and shopping for produce. It excites me, engages me and eats up my time like no other hobby. So the fact that I have two mini-foodies for kids should come at no surprise.

Yet they do surprise me. Their delight in trying new foods, the way they dive right in to complicated dishes and close their eyes to discern flavors, it simultaneously amazes me and strikes a familiar chord. We often joke that my five year-old daughter Maddie will either be a successful lobbyist (though I think that's mostly personality) or a chef, for her uncanny ability to identify specific tastes, herbs, and spices within a single dish.

That day in the restaurant left more than stains on their sleeves; it left such an impression on my heart I knew that I had to write about their experience, to preserve it outside of my memory. As oil coated their faces and hair, giving them the appearance of sunbathers smothered in Coppertone and lemon juice, the camera of my memory snapped away, capturing moment after moment of pure joy.

I've learned that every meal shared around our table is a chance to create lasting memories. There is something magical about a family gathered together each night, enjoying not only each other's company but good food as well. Our little table regularly expands to welcome friends, travelers, and visitors to dinner. We host large dinners, cooking most of the afternoon, popping open bottles of wine, lingering outside with the last light before the sun disappears behind Las Trampas. Everyone becomes family at the table. A shared meal binds us together and creates intimacy in a way that nothing else can.

We developed our own spin on the mussel dish a few weekends ago. Plans fell through with our friends who we invited to our table, leaving our family of four no choice but to finish off five pounds of steamed mussels. I can only hope that our local fishermen have mussels to offer this Saturday at the Farmer's Market, so you too can enjoy the delight that accompanies this plate of mussels, sitting in a tangy, bright broth bursting with fennel and citrus. Go, make memories.

Mussels in a White Wine Broth
serves 6 as an appetizer (or 2 adults and 2 children as dinner!)
adapted from Epicurious

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
4 large garlic cloves, chopped fine
3 teaspoons fennel seeds
dried crushed red pepper to taste (1/2 teaspoon if you aren't big on spice; we used 1 1/2 teaspoons)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon honey
1 cup white wine
half a lemon, sliced thin
2 1/2 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded
freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup tomatoes, chopped

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper and salt and cook until onion begins to brown, about 4-5 minutes. Pour honey over and allow to carmelize the onions and spices just slightly, about 1-2 minute more.

Add wine and lemon slices to pan, stir well, and bring to a boil. Add mussels. Cover pot with lid and allow to cook 5-6 minutes or until most of the shells have opened. Remove mussels from broth with a slotted spoon and place in a large, shallow bowl.

Cook broth for about 3-5 minutes more, or until reduced to 1 cup. Season to taste with pepper and stir in tomatoes. Serve with crusty bread for dipping.

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