This time, Carolyn sang to the mussels.  “What do mussels dream of/when they take a little mussel snooze?” Carolyn intoned, to the tune of some song from some movie I haven’t seen.  The guilt at eating bivalves – cute, cuddly bivalves! – had grown in her.  Lauren had scrapped her previous argument – What if we get invaded by giant, sentient mussels? – but had replaced it with a more compelling one, which countered my argument of They don’t feel anything.  And they’re delicious with What if WE’RE DELICIOUS and the vastly-intelligent creatures that invade US don’t think we can feel pain, either? What about that, huh?

I said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, girls.  D’you want dinner or what?”  They wanted dinner.  My friends have it rough.

At this point, Lauren was less concerned with killing the mussels, and more concerned with whether or not they'd kill her.  "Is this one still good?" she's saying.  Thwap, thwap.  "Oh, okay.  It's still alive."

I decided I wanted to do Mexican-style mussels this week, using pretty standard flavors from the Mexican kitchen, but maybe with one or two items unfamiliar to American home cooks – cooking with dried chiles, for one, and trying out epazote, a Mexican herb which can be found in pretty much any Mexican supermercado if you ask politely – and not even in Spanish.  I don’t speak a word, and I got mine pretty easily – it’s with the other fresh herbs, at any rate, and besides, how difficult is it to say, “Disculpeme, donde está el epazote, por favor?”

There are a ton of dried chile peppers that belong in the Mexican pantry, but we’re going to start today with chile de árbol, which is a fairly hot pepper that’s usually found dried – you can probably get them fresh in the United States, but I wouldn’t ask you to try for those.  Chiles de árbol are skinny and red and long, and they tend to come in little plastic packets; don’t let me catch you paying more than 2 or 3 bucks maximum for one of them.  I’m pretty sure I pay $1.50.

Now.  Epazote is a pretty exciting herb, and a rather obscure one to the American palate.  I’m still not at the point where I can just nibble on it raw, the way I might with a basil leaf or a bit of chopped mint or cilantro, but I do like it.  I like its weird, strong flavor – sort of like a sprig of tarragon that’s been steeped in premium-grade gasoline.  No, it tastes better than that, like lamp oil and licorice.  No, seriously, don’t run away!  It’s good, I promise, and when you disperse it across a large body of liquid, it takes on a much subtler, friendlier flavor.  It’s especially good with black beans (and they say it acts as a carminative – that is, a gas-reducer.  The more you know!).

So those are your two Mexican flavors to get used to – the bright, punky jolt of árbol chiles, and the verdant, smoky embrace of epazote.  I almost want to compare it to cooking with Scotch, but not the terrifyingly funky Islay Scotch whiskey that my roommate loves – I’ve told him I think it smells like Swamp Thing.  Fiery Demon Swamp Thing.  He agrees, but still finds it delicious.  I demur.

Mejillones con Chorizo y Epazote – Moules à la Méxicainewrite the recipe in English already, for chrissake – Mussels with Chorizo and Epazote
Serves four

The Setup

THAT IS WHAT EPAZOTE LOOKS LIKE.  ALSO CHILES DE ARBOL.

You will need:

  • 1/2 lb fresh Mexican chorizo/spicy pork sausage
  • 4 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4-5 chiles de árbol, dried.
  • 1/4 cup to 1/2 epazote leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium-sized tomato, chopped (optional, because I forgot about it)
  • 1/2 cup white wine (I used a Riesling)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2.5 lbs mussels, scrubbed (the most important part!)
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 handsome squirt lime juice

The Heist

  1. Execute your mise-en-place: chop the vegetables, portion out your spices, chop the epazote and cilantro.
  2. Heat a large (6 to 8-quart) cast-iron dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add the chorizo, and stir to break up – cook, stirring none too gently, for three or four minutes.Choriz you is or is you ain't my baby?
  3. Add garlic and cumin seed, and stir until nicely fragrant, perhaps two minutes.Next time I'll try to get fresh chorizo.  But they were sold out.  I am disappointed in myself.
  4. Deposit onion in pot and cook till soft.This is probably one of the greatest smells in the universe.
  5. As the onions are cooking, take the arbol chiles, break them in half, and rub them between your fingers over the pot – this will unleash a rain of very spicy seeds – you may wish not to use these seeds.  You would be wrong to do so, but it’s your prerogative, kid.  (They end up not being all that spicy, in the aggregate.)  Drop the spent husks into the mix as well.And then wash your hands to get the chile off.   This is a less pressing concern with dried chiles than fresh, but still - don't go rubbing your eyes or picking your nose.  Also, don't do either of those things while cooking; what's wrong with you?
  6. Once the onions are soft, add the chopped epazote and the optional tomato, and stir until the epazote is wilted.  Then pour in the white wine and the water and bring to a brisk little boil.Do you expect me to talk, Blofeld?
  7. Dump in the mussels.No, James Bivalve - I EXPECT YOU TO DIE
  8. Bring to a boil again – cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and cook till the mussels open – perhaps 7 minutes or so.  Sprinkle in the cilantro and kill the heat.    I'm not sure what cilantro wouldn't improve, at this point.  Possibly brownies.
  9. Apply handsome squirt of lime juice, mix, and serve with a crusty loaf of bread or lil’ homemade gorditas!I wonder how this would be with avocado.  Probably AWESOME.
    * note on service: what you see here is just a stylized representation of the plate – serve the mussels in deep bowls so you can collect all that marvelous broth.  Serve with spoons, too, so you can just eat it (and all that chorizo) when you’ve finished the mussels

    ).  I mean, look at it!You're glad you looked at it.

On gorditas:  Don’t hate me, people of Latin, Central, and South America: a gordita is an arepa is a pupusa.  Basically.  Sort of.  Not really.  A Mexican gordita is a small round of masa dough that has been fried in oil – it’s thicker and fatter than a tortilla (which is usually made on a comal or griddle without oil), and thus we call it a gordita, which means, I guess, lil’ fatty.  Venezuelan arepas and Salvadoran pupusas are similar, though not exactly the same – that’s sort of like me comparing a Chicago-style hot dog to a Detroit-style Coney dog – they’re superficially similar enough, but it’s a specious enough comparison that, if I spoke it aloud, would probably get me punched in the face.  WITH THAT IN MIND:

Lil’ Homemade Gorditas (chubby tortillettes*)
Makes two or three pretty chubby gorditas

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • vegetable oil as needed, for pan-frying

* that is a word I made up.

Directions

  1. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and gradually add water until the mixture comes together in a somewhat crumbly dough – go a little beyond this, but not too much.  It can be damp, but not gooey.
  2. Begin heating a non-stick pan with a little bit of oil in it.
  3. Shape the masa dough into little rounds with your hands (no need for a tortilla press or rolling pin here), and smack them back and forth between your palms until you have little discs about a quarter- to a half-inch thick – quite thick, as far as these things go.Don't flip it too much - it might fall apart.  Be gentle!  We're all learning here.
  4. Plop a gordita into the hot oil and fry gently over medium heat, 3 to 4 minutes per side, until golden brown, crispy, and delicious.  Drain on paper towels and serve with marvelous things.  It may also be possible, if the masa gods smile on you, to split the gordita in half like a pita and stuff it with things.  But I believe that takes time, practice, and proper obeisance to Quetzalcoatl, so we’ll cover that another time.

Happy cooking!