Today I’d like to share another essay with you.
It’s about my dad–big surprise, I know. But it’s also, unlike the last two essays, about food! In a sense, I suppose you could consider this piece an extended meditation on the origins of my appetite, the existence of this blog, and why I love cooking so very much.
You can reach the essay by clinking on the “essays” tab in the blog’s header, or using this link. If you’d like to read the essay on paper instead of the screen, the little orange Joliprint button at the end of the essay will format it into a PDF for easy printing.
As always, I thank you deeply for your readership; I am so grateful for you. And if essays aren’t your thing, I’ll be back later in the week with a recipe!
“Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s something my boss often says. She’s the kind of woman who tells it like it is. She wears red cowboy boots on Fridays. She is sassy and straightforward and has zero tolerance for bullshit. It’s pretty awesome, working for her.
Like much of the world’s best advice, the idea of keeping things simple is both really obvious (“Like, duh!” as I would have said as an eighth grader, though the kids aren’t really saying that anymore these days) and really hard. There’s some mechanism in me that seems to want to make things complicated, just for fun. For difficulty, or drama, or because I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
I’ve been talking about this very thing with a good friend of mine. She’s currently seeing someone new, a man who is complimentary of her and kind to her, has been nothing but honest and generous, who sent flowers and then had dinner delivered to her house one night, because she wasn’t feeling well. Quite simply, he likes her, and he isn’t trying to hide it.
This has lead, of course, to lots of excitement on my friend’s part, but also some moments of questioning: what’s wrong with this guy? Is there something weird about him? Maybe this is all too good to be true.
See, I think trick ourselves into thinking that things have to be DIFFICULT in order to have any virtue. That life has to be a struggle, a slog…that there’s always shit hidden away somewhere, waiting to hit the fan. Don’t get me wrong—sometimes life is hard, and sometimes those uphill battles end up being the most rewarding. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t also be wonderfully simple and easy and GOOD. Without us messing them up by trying to complicate them, you know?
Which brings me to mussels. I had never made mussels before July, and I totally thought they were going to be tricky and persnickety and difficult, but they were so the opposite. Mussels are dead-simple! They’re easy! They’re delicious.
Seriously. You make a broth, starting with butter and tomatoes and garlic, plus some white wine. You can throw in some other stuff—sausage or herbs or spicy peppers—or you can just keep it plain and, you know, simple.
While your broth is getting all broth-y, you take the mussels out of the fridge and rinse them really well, pulling the “beards” (a.k.a. tough, fibrous protrusions) off of any that have ‘em, discarding any shells that have already opened.
Once your sauce is simmering, plop! go the mussels into the sauce and on goes the lid. Toast up some good bread while you wait. Once it toasts, rub a garlic clove over the surface. Once you do that, slather on some butter. You’re done.
Open the lid and check on your mussels, who be all opened up and ready to be slurped. Throw away any shells that did not open. Ladle that good stuff into a flat, wide bowl and hand it + plenty of bread to someone you think is swell. They’ll know you think so, because you just handed them a bowl of mussels (duh). Simple as that.
STEAMED MUSSELS IN TOMATO BROTH
If you wanted to make this mussels recipe a bit less decadent (though that would be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?), you could use only olive oil, both for making the broth and for toasting the bread.
2 pounds black mussels
butter & olive oil
lots of very thinly sliced garlic (for me, 10 cloves—for you, maybe only 3-4)
1-2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 large can (15 oz) good-quality tomato puree
1 cup dry white wine
2 T tomato paste
handful of scallions, chopped
optional: fresh basil and/or oregano
serve with: crusty bread, toasted, rubbed with garlic & buttered
Heat 2 T olive oil and 2 T butter in a large saucepot over medium heat. Add the garlic, half the scallions, and a pinch of salt, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes, until the garlic begins to color. Add the tomato puree, wine, and red pepper flakes and turn the heat up to bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce to medium, add the mussels, and cover with a lid. Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the mussels open. (Discard any mussels that don’t.) Remove the lid and add the remaining scallions, plus any fresh herbs if using. I also like to toss in a few extra tablespoons of butter, to thicken the sauce.
Ladle the mussels, plus plenty of broth, into bowls, and serve with toast. Yields 4 large portions or 6 smaller ones.
“My baby don’t mess around/because she loves me so/and this I know fo shooooooo…”
Things I’ve learned recently: having the song “Hey Ya!” stuck in your head for two weeks straight won’t actually do you physical harm, even though you may become convinced that you’re going to lose your mind. Eventually you will just let go and make peace with its presence, even embracing it on a few enthusiastic occasions which may or may not involved serenading the dog while dancing around the kitchen with her in your arms. (Usually we stick to Lady Gaga while dancing around the kitchen, but sometimes you have to make concessions.)
I’ve also found that a person can get really, really, REALLY excited about spending her Labor Day weekend…painting her bathroom. For serious. I am now bffs with the folks behind the paint counter at my neighborhood Home Depot. Today we laughed over the more ludicrous paint name colors (“Hallowed Hush,” “Frosted Wine,” “Chilled Lemonade”) and wondered how one goes about getting the job of naming them while my second gallon of “Swan Sea” was mixing. My bathroom-painting project is three-quarters complete, and I must say, I never before appreciated just how many DAMN CORNERS there are in that bathroom. Guarantee I will never look at them the same way again.
Also, Friday nights? Turns out the Jewish people have been right all along, they are totally for resting. Jill and I have begun to observe our own Sabbath of sorts: no company, no plans, and no TV. We decline all invitations for Friday events and instead cook dinner, read, take baths, and are usually in bed by 10:00. We are so, so boring and it is so, so wonderful.
What have been your revelations of late? I’d love to hear them.
LEMON-LIME BASIL SHORTBREAD COOKIES
very slightly adapted from Bon Appétit, July 2011
Another thing I seemingly need to learn–basil is just not going to grow in my yard. Rosemary? Tons of it. Sage? Oh yes. Mint? Like a weed. But that elusive basil, despite the efforts of greenest-of-all-thumbs-Jill, just won’t seem to thrive. So I have decided to let go. I have wonderful friends who bring me giant bunches of their enormous, thriving basil plants, with which I make batches of pesto, toss the rest into salads, dressings, pastas and…these cookies.
Not too sweet, with a nice tang of citrus and just the slightest, herby hint of basil, it’s all-too-easy to down a handful of these with a cup of tea. I think they’d also be lovely rolled out and cut into shapes.
1 cup flour
½ cup powdered sugar, plus a bit more for shaping the cookies
½ cup cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes
a big handful of fresh basil leaves, sliced
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lime
1 T fresh lemon juice
sanding sugar (optional)—you could substitute Turbinado, Demerara, or any other large-crystal sugar, or just use plain ole table sugar
pan: parchment-lined baking sheets
Place all ingredients but the sanding sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until large clumps form and the dough starts to come together. (You could do this by hand with a pastry cutter or your hands, it will just take more time and elbow grease!)
Roll heaping tablespoons of dough between your palms to make balls. Place about 2” apart on the baking sheets, then use the bottom of a glass rubbed in powdered sugar to flatten each ball of dough. If you’re using sanding or decorative sugar, sprinkle it over the tops of the cookies.
Bake until the edges turn light brown, about 15-20 minutes. Cool on racks. These keep well in an airtight container for a few days.