The BFF asked me for “my” recipe for mussels- moules- during our Therapy Session this morning. I have Chef Érick’s recipe. I can take no credit. Only credit for eating my weight in them! So, down The Sabbatical Chef memory lane we go. To almost the beginning. I haven’t re-read it yet. I will. In a few minutes. After I finish the week’s lesson plans. Tonight.
As I sit here, ready to tell you all about my birthday dinner/feast, I have not decided which photo to post. The perfect one wasn’t taken. I should have taken one of the moules or mussels before they were consumed and nothing remained except a few drops of juice and one or two little bits of onion. Taking pictures just was not on my mind at the time, I must confess. (I have since added a photo I took at the market of mussels…)
The day started the way most of them do around here- breakfast on the table by 8:30 am, laundry to get off the line, fold and put away, more laundry to hang, breakfast dishes to do, kitchen to clean, two rooms to clean and prepare for the next guests, all of this accomplished by noon with the help of Dorette (she didn’t realize she would have to wash dishes either, Martha and Monette- it’s an evil trap we have here for people who stay on the family side of the house…). Chef Érick is really good at scrubbing showers. He did the green room while I did the yellow.
Lunch consisted of leftovers from the day before when we made lunch for two Japanese women who are visiting. On of them, Minae, was Madeleine Vedel’s boss when she lived in Japan. We had a salad of yellow, green and red tomatoes, raw oysters, shrimp, couscous salad and risotto rice cooked in the shrimp broth, followed by several different local goat cheeses and chocolate from Joël Durand, chocolatier in St. Rémy. The wine was a Costière de Nîmes white wine made by Jean-Paul Cabanis. Seth and Craig at the Wine Authorities need to check him out!
After lunch, I took my shower and put on one of what I like to call my “dresses from Christian Lacroix’s Saturday Market Line.” Dorette had given me a really pretty scarf at breakfast that I wanted to wear. That was so tiring that I decided I needed a little siesta and took a quick nap, wrote a letter to my mom and sister and went back down to the kitchen in time to find Chef Érick chopping vegetables. I thought maybe he was going to prepare an aïoli. He wouldn’t say. Then he chopped onions and tomatoes and put them on to cook. When he added a couple of bay leaves and some dry white wine, I became suspicious. Moules marinières provençales? I do love mussels from the Mediterranean Sea. Dorette and I opened a bottle of Jean-Paul’s rosé and helped debeard the mussels. There seemed to be a huge quantity for only the three of us. I asked if perhaps we were feeding the Russian Army? I had no idea how that would translate for a Frenchman. My mom always used that line. He just smiled and continued stirring. He steamed the mussels and then we arranged them in the tian. I love arranging them and saving some of the shells to use as eating utensils! This is when I should’ve gotten the camera ready. However, the baked pastry for a millefeuille appeared and he set about making the pastry cream. Then the sound of the doorbell distracted me further. I went to answer and found Marie-Christine and her dog waiting. Not the Russian Army, needless to say, but a very chic French woman who runs Le Pot au Tabac in town. I ushered her into the kitchen and offered her a glass of rosé. She gave me a beautiful china dish with a hand-painted Arlesienne woman on it. When the doorbell rang again, I found Gilles, Didier and Monique waiting. A few minutes later Gilbert (aka GBear) also showed up. So, the party started! I am so glad that my 50th birthday gave us all a chance to get together again. And this time with Dorette added. Monique and Didier gave me an original drawing of an Arlesienne. Their hair ornaments and dresses give them away. The woman of Arles have been painted by Picasso and Van Gogh, just to name two famous painters.
We feasted on the mussels and couscous, with more rosé supplied by Gilles and Gilbert. The millefeuille was greatly appreciated, too. We didn’t even bother to set the dining room table. We ate at the stainless steel work table that is in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that the kitchen is the center of people’s homes? No matter how nice your living room is or what the set up is in your house, when friends come over to eat, the kitchen becomes the favorite place to hang out. It is definitely the case here. The kitchen used to be a stable- the feeding place for lambs. That gives the room a very comforting aura.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that eating is all about who you are sharing the food with. After I left Arles last summer and returned home, I found that I really wasn’t very hungry. Cooking for just myself was more of a chore than a pleasure. It’s the act of cooking for someone and then sharing the meal that makes eating a pleasurable experience. It’s an offering of sorts, a very personal one. In France, it is the social occasion, not just the prelude to going to the movies or a sporting event. Hours are spent talking, discussing the day’s happenings, telling jokes (I still don’t always get them and need them explained, as Dorette found out), as well as eating. A very nice way of life, n’est-ce pas?
2 kg. (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) mussels (in Arles, we use the Bouzigues variety, from the Mediterranean Sea- these are saltier than mussels from the Atlantic or Pacific so we do not add any extra salt)
one cup water
For the sauce:
1 onion, minced
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 tomato, diced
1 cup dry white wine
4 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
1. Debeard the mussels and set them to steam in a tall, covered pot with a cup of water. This will take 10-15 minutes. Once all the shells are open, remove from the flame and set aside. Do not throw away the mussel juice in the pot.
2. In a quart/liter size saucepan, pour the olive oil and add the minced onion. Simmer on a low flame until the onions have sweated and become simply translucent. Watch carefully and be sure that the onions do not brown. Add the chopped tomato and stir a moment, add the wine, the crushed garlic, the bay leaves and the mussel juice from the steaming pot. Bring to a boil and let simmer and reduce for 20-30 minutes.
3. To serve: Take a large rimmed platter and place the opened mussels in the half-shell in one layer throughout the platter. Extra mussels can be taken from their shells and added to the shells in the platter. Leave a few whole to be used as pinchers to eat the mussels. If you are making the mussels ahead of time, put them in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve, then take them out and gently reheat the serving dish, ladle the sauce over the mussels and serve. By ladling the piping hot sauce over the mussels, you reheat them without drying them out in the oven.
*Left over mussel juice is wonderful for a seafood risotto the next day, or as a base for a seafood chowder. Use it within a day or two at the most or freeze it for later use.