Cockles ‘n’ Mash.

June 3, 2011

The second main heading in the professional cook’s handbook I purchased a few weeks ago is “World Cuisines”, which is designed to familiarize the culinary professional with the key flavors of different food cultures.  The Americas get twenty pages.  Asian cuisines get fifty.  Europe gets about 40, with entries for Hungary, Portugal, Spain, and ‘Eastern Europe’.

The British Isles have no such entry in The Professional Chef.  This saddens my heart.  The late Laurie Colwin first opened my eyes to the notion that British cooking, particularly English cooking, could be enticing and wonderful in her book Home Cooking, which gave me a really good ginger cake recipe that I used to bake a lot in college.  But it wasn’t my idea to do English-style bivalves.  No, I give credit to Carolyn, my lovely librarian girlfriend; I was struggling with ideas for another Mussel Night. 

“Do something English,” she said.
”How would that work?” I said.
”Serve it over mashed potatoes!” she exclaimed.  “And put English flavors and aromatics in the mussels themselves.”

This was enough to set me off on a really excitable jaunt that stopped just short of Marmite (English Vegemite, or autolyzed yeast extract.  One puts it on toast.).  “What’s English?” I wondered aloud.  “Ooo!  Mustard!  Mustard is exceedingly English.  And bacon!  And ale!”

My impression of traditional English cookery is very much one in which flavors are tamped down and tamed – save the heat for vindaloo; tonight we’ve a lovely roast with mint jam for tea.  I can’t say I blame this on the books I read as a child, since my childhood was full of the glorious feasting dreams of the Redwall novels.  But I’ve long suspected that the English were mistrustful of members of the Allium genus, finding garlic and onions rather too brash and Continental for their tastes.  This suspicion stems from the way Geoffrey Chaucer describes the court summoner (sort of an ecclesiastical bailiff) in the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, which I’ve put at the end of the post, because it’s a little gross.  *

I know this isn’t really true anymore, and hasn’t been for many years, but I didn’t want garlic to be a major player in this recipe – if you feel that two cloves of garlic is too many, I respect your opinion.  But I wanted the mustard to come out and play – and if I were being really awfully traditional, I’d be using Colman’s dry mustard powder, not (hateful, French) coarse-grained Dijon mustard.  In fact, really, I should be thumping the table, eating a sausage off a knife, scratching my muttonchops, and damning the Dutch over my claret.  But I’m an American, by cracky – and I ask you to forgive my my trespasses.

I also felt that thyme was an herb so English as to be absolutely necessary.  You must let no man steal it, after all.  Jeez, this entry is so thickly buttered with references, I’m not sure what side would hit the floor first.

Important Note:

This is classified as a Mussel Day recipe, though there aren’t mussels in it.  The folks at my favorite fishmonger, The Fish Guy at Montrose and Elston, were out of mussels.  Jolene, who mans the counter on Wednesdays (womans the counter?), cried out, “Oh no!” when I came in.  “I’ve got bad news, Dave,” she said.  “We’re out of mussels BUT we have plenty of clams.”  I pretended to be angry.  “How could you, Jolene,” I deadpanned.  “I am so furious with your business-type establishment.”

She assured me I’d be happy with the clams, and I remembered that she’d asserted her preference for clams over mussels anyhow.  She prefers their taste.  They’re easier to clean, too – clams don’t have beards like mussels do.  Jolene is right: clams are excellent!  Mussel Day might become Clam Day for a while.

Important Note 2:

Cockles and clams aren’t exactly the same thing.  They’re both bivalves, and both part of the family veneridae (that’s right, all hinged-shell bivalves are named after the goddess Venus.), and that’s good enough for me.  A cockle is a little clam, and we’re using big clams.  I apologize.  I really wanted to name this recipe something jocular and Englishy, so there.  And phooey on your insistence on accurate nomenclature.  Go back to sleep, Carl von Linné; return to thy unquiet grave.

Cockles ‘n’ Mash, or English-Style Clams and Mashed Potatoes
Serves four

The Setup

For the clams:

  • A dutch oven, or any heavy pot with a lid, at least 5 quarts
  • 2 lbs clams
  • 1/4 lb bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1 tbsp coarse-grained mustard
  • 1 bottle of ale (not IPA or stout), like Newcastle Brown Ale, or Boddington’s Pale Ale
  • 4-5 green onions
  • Salt and pepper

For the mashed potatoes:

  • a large pot, 4 quarts or larger
  • starchy potatoes, like russets
  • butter
  • milk
  • a touch of cream
  • salt and pepper(I’m not going to include a quantitative recipe for mashed potatoes because I don’t think I’ve ever used one.  I’ll just give you basic instructions.)

The Heist

The setup.  Oh man - if you can find a place that sells big old chunks of bacon, DO IT.  You will not regret such a purchase.

  1. Execute your mise-en-place – chop up your onion, mince your garlic, dice your bacon thickly (if you have chunk bacon, make them into little cubes or lardons), and chop your potatoes into quarters or sixths, depending on their size.  Scrub the clams with a brush and rinse them with cool water.  Do not cover the clams with water or they’ll drown, never mind the fact that you’re about to murder them in cold blood and hot beer.  You don’t have to worry about the green onions yet – that’s the garnish. 

    I love the texture of chunks of bacon - it's really pleasant; somewhat chewy, somewhat crisp.  Allwhat delicious.

  2. Collect your chopped potatoes and chuck them into your potato pot.  Cover them with cold water, sprinkle in a teaspoon or two of salt, and put it on the stove over high heat.
  3. Meanwhile, begin heating your dutch oven over medium heat, and start cooking the bacon in the dutch oven. 

    Awwwww yeah sucka that's RIGHT.

  4. When the potatoes come to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-high and cook until fork-tender, almost crumbling.  This will probably take about 25 minutes.  I might start the potatoes before anything else, honestly.
  5. While the potatoes are cooking, and when the bacon is sufficiently crisped, remove it from the dutch oven with a slotted spoon and reserve it for later.  Cook the onions in the bacon fat until they’re soft, and somewhat browned – perhaps 5 minutes.  Then add the garlic, the mustard, and the thyme – cook for a few minutes until the flavors all harmonize and start singing together (that is, when you can’t distinguish any of the individual scents so distinctly anymore).  

    This is one of those Awesome Smells.

  6. Pour in the beer and bring to a boil – wait for the fizz to abide before you make that judgment; it’s difficult to discern carbonation from boiling in that first minute.  


  7. Toss in the clams, and bring to a boil again – then clamp the lid on your dutch oven, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 7 to 9 minutes, until the clams open up.  Kill the heat. 

    Carolyn couldn't resist a little poke.  She cleaned the clams, and even started poking them to see what they'd do!  Oh, I'm so proud.
    Also, Lodge: Send me money.  Thank you.

    I'll take $200 in non-sequential 20s, please.

  8. Drain the cooked potatoes and return the pot to the stove over low heat – throw in a few smallish cubes of butter, a healthy glug of milk, and a little dose of cream (a tablespoon or two), as well as salt and pepper.  Mash, stir, don’t overdo it cause you’ll turn it to glue.  

    Booker T and the MGarnishes

  9. Slice the green onions thinly and sprinkle them over the clams – mix and then serve: fill half of a deep bowl with the mashed potatoes, and then the other half with the clams and their broth.  Top with green onions and the reserved bacon. 

    Aww look at that goodness.  Also, if you smush the mashed potatoes into the clam broth.  It makes a fancy instant chowder.  Sort of like a Rhode Island clam chowder.

Eat with splendid lashings of ginger beer, rhubarb tart, and post-colonial racism!  Spiffing, isn’t it?  Rather wizard! **



The Slightly Gross Chaucer Bit, below the fold

Read the rest of this entry »


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


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


  • 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.


  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!

Now, I trust you kept hold of that mussel broth, like I asked you to in the last entry.  This is one of those fridge-emptier recipes, one of those “Oh, damn it, what am I going to do with all this ingredient x” standbys.

Often, after having confronted a tasty bowl of mussels in a restaurant, one is left with a delicious pool of broth that one is powerless to address.  Sure, the waitstaff has brought out bread for the mussels, but it is never enough for one, is it?  One cannot request more bread, as one would feel like a glutton, especially if the mussels in question are intended to be the prelude to the evening’s entrée.  One is therefore resigned to bidding the delicious mussel broth a tearful goodbye.

No more, I say!  I’m not about to go out and say that you request to have the mussel broth boxed up and taken home with you, although that isn’t, strictly speaking, a bad idea.  But when you make mussels, reserve that broth!  Hold it tight to your breast, because that’s half the work of another meal right there.  There’s no reason that the work of one meal can’t be the work of two or three.  In fact, let’s codify that as a Recession Tip:

David’s Tips for Living Well in A Recession

Tip #4: The effort it takes to generate one meal can be redirected into easily making others.

I suppose I’d sort of forgotten about those.  I should point out that making your own coconut milk fits neatly into Tip 3#: process it yourself.

Anyway, let’s say you’ve just made either the Thai Mussels or the Garam Mussela, and you’ve got, oh, a cup and a half of broth left over or so – this is a coconut-mussel stock, with either wine or tomato providing the rest of the liquid.  This is the time when those little freezer packs of tilapia come in immensely handy, though this would, obviously, work with fresh fish of any sort.

It's easy to assemble!  No batteries required.

Morning-After Fish-and-Mussel Soup, à la Thaïlandais

Serves two, or one for breakfast and then lunch

The Setup

You will need:

  • a little oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • a piece of ginger the size of your distal thumb joint (the part with the thumbnail on it), minced
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms – about eight, sliced
  • 1½ to 2 cups leftover mussel broth, with the mussels removed and set aside
  • 1 tilapia filet, maybe 4 to 5 oz, frozen (or not.  Also, any other firm, white-fleshed fish in similar quantity)
  • a touch of fish sauce
  • the juice of half a lime
  • (optional) a splash of cream
  • Hot steamed rice, to serve with

The Heist

  1. Execute your mise-en-place: mince the garlic and the ginger, put in a tiny bowl.  Slice the mushrooms and set aside.
  2. Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks, and set aside while you heat a small saucepan with a little bit of oil.

    Fish is awfully easy to cut when it's frozen.  These tilapia also come in those little single-use packs that I so abhor for chicken breasts, but they don't seem to bug me for fish.

  3. Saute the garlic and the ginger until they’re aromatic and soft.

    As you read these recipes - especially if you don't consider yourself someone who cooks - start looking BEYOND the recipe and into the structure of the thing.

  4. Then add the mushrooms, stirring occasionally; cook till somewhat brown.

    For example, it seems like every recipe I ever start on the stove tends to involve the cooking of aromatics in a fat of some kind - in this case, our aromatics are garlic and ginger, and that fat is a vegetable oil. 

  5. Add in the mussel stock (reserving the mussels themselves – you’re going to add them in just before serving, because you just want them to warm through, and bring to a bare simmer.  Squirt in the lime juice, the fish sauce, and the optional splash of cream.  You are also free to add more stock, more water, or whatever you wish, if you feel that you lack enough liquid in the pan.

    We cook things until they're brown, usually, because brown is evidence of tasty Maillard reactions or caramelization, which, in the case of the first, rewrites protein molecules so that they say Brown and Delicious, whereas, in the case of the second, sucrose gets melted and broken down into component sugars, which are also rearranged to spell Brown and Delicious, molecularly speaking.

  6. Tip in the chunks of tilapia and cook over medium heat until the fish is firm to the touch or tooth, about five to seven minutes.

    I'm sure I'll run afoul of a great number of organic chemists, particularly the ones that read alt-text (I know great scads of you read XKCD, anyhow).  If you happen to be one, and you recognize how poorly I'm representing these chemical reactions, send me an email:  I'm all ears.
    It should look somewhat like this:

    The point is, though, that, as a general rule of cuisine, we cook things until these reactions happen, and then, in the case of soup, we add a stock or a broth or some kind of liquid to cover, and the Brown and Delicious molecules get rearranged into a solution and in that way are distributed throughout a dish.  If you think about it, a deglazing is very similar, except that you use quite a bit less liquid.

  7. Stir in the mussels, and heat through, about a minute or two.

    Encourage yourself to start thinking beyond the constraints of Recipe, as they're only guidelines.  I didn't use a recipe to come up with this soup.  I just used taste memory, good sense, and  a long and storied relationship with soup to craft it.

  8. Serve over hot white rice, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and eat with iced tea.  Enjoy your day.

    There's no reason why you couldn't do the same.

Garam Mussela.

May 9, 2011

“Do they eat mussels in India? They must.” I thought of what little I knew of Indian food, imagined Salman Rushdie eating prawns in Breach Candy (which has to be one of the greatest placenames I’ve ever read about), striped-shirted fishermen hauling wicker baskets of their catches, chewing paan, spitting, and cursing assiduously (I assume fishermen all over the world are the same), and tried to imagine myself eating a fish curry at a seaside shack in the capital city of the state of Kerala, in the southwest – the name of the city (Thiruvananthapuram) would spend more time in my mouth than the curry, I expect.

The set-up

I didn’t find mussels in my sole Indian cookbook (Madhur Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking, now lamentably out of print). I suppose I also wouldn’t mind owning a copy of Raghavan Iyer’s more recent 660 Curries, which, being a broad survey of Indian regional cuisines, probably has mussels in it.

Anyway, the point is that I’m an ignorant gora (white guy, foreigner) when it comes to Indian regional cooking. I immediately figured Goa would have something to offer me when it came to the cooking of mussels, as it is a thriving seaport with a Portuguese colonial history, and nobody loves the fruits of the deep as much as the Portuguese, except, perhaps, the Goans. So, had I done a little proper research, I would have given you a mussels recipe similar to a vindaloo (from the portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos) – a vinegary, spiced (fish?) broth, a coconut-oil saute for the starter aromatics, which would have been ginger, fenugreek, and mustard seed. And God knows if that would have tasted any good, because I just made that up right now.

No, instead, all that came to mind when I thought about Goa was coconut milk and fish. Now, you’ll recall that I recently made my own coconut milk, and talked about whether or not it was worth it to make yourself (short answer: no, not unless you’re making a whole lot of it, in which case, yes). I quite liked the broth that resulted from the Red Curry Thai Mussels, and desired something similar. I also very quickly zeroed in on a pun and refused to let go of it, never mind that garam masala is a Hindi thing, and therefore Northern Indian (to be unspeakably broad, ignorant, and blunt), and pretty damned dissimilar to the food of the Indian Southwest. I just knew I had to put it in a mussel dish.

As luck would have it, I found a recipe online that answered to my desires; there are sometimes advantages to being a sloppy American food tourist, leafing with my blunt, sausagey fingers through the cookbooks of disparate cuisines, knocking my neck-tethered camera against the grocery stall, mumbling, in crappy Hindi, kya apa me giving-eka-those-things, please? Sometimes you get to use that cultural distance to get away from those twin, imposing obelisks that we call Authenticity and Fusion, and knock them down to make a structure called That Tastes Good.

Before I get to the actual recipe, I should offer a bit of a warning that I may have neglected to offer last time: mussels are still alive when you buy them. I suppose this isn’t common knowledge, even to people that really love mussels – I was surprised to see them open and close and wiggle very slightly the first time I took home a sack of them. (Although it is impossible to purchase the obviously-alive and absurdly-phallic razor clam without acknowledging his membership in the club of living things.)


mussel animation
I say this because I was divvying up kitchen responsibilities between me, my girlfriend Carolyn, and our friend Lauren – this was the night we were also making naan and Madhur Jaffrey’s curried cauliflower. And I said, “Okay, who wants to clean the mussels?” And both of them volunteered, until I allowed that the beasties were still alive: I demonstrated how to pluck the little beardy byssus from the abyssal bluish bivalve (sorry), I told them that sometimes it was necessary to poke the mussel with a spoon or a butter knife to make sure it closed properly. Caro demurred on cleaning the mussels for another day, and set to work on a different kitchen task, but Lauren bravely took on the task, though she repeatedly apologized to the mussels as she cleaned them.

I harbor almost no compunctions about cooking mussels, and while I was a little skeeved out by the one time I drove an eight-inch knife into the head of a live lobster (dude, it kept wriggling), I didn’t exactly feel guilty. I side with Alton Brown when he says that arthropods are basically cockroaches, and I feel a similar remove from bivalves. Nevertheless, I understand and respect your reservations about dropping a couple pounds of living creatures into a bath of boiling liquid.

But there’s really no other way to do this, and I urge you to to chance the consequences; in the rare, rare case that, as Lauren posits, the first sentient beings to make contact with humankind are enormous, intelligent bivalves, likely to be incensed at our treatment of clams, mussels, and scallops, we can just hide those empty shells behind our backs and say that someone else ate them.

Garam Mussella

adapted from this gourmet magazine recipe – I didn’t change much of anything save for reducing the amount of mussels, and upping the amount of garam masala; as directed, the garam masala flavor was depressingly subdued.

Serves four, plus a little left over
The Setup

  • 2 .5 lbs mussels
  • 3 to 4 tbsp olive or coconut oil
  • one medium onion, diced
  • one largish fennel bulb, diced, fronds removed and reserved
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 to 3 tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp aleppo pepper
  • 1 can diced tomatoes in juice
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 cup chiffonaded (ribbon-cut) basil leaves

The Heist

1. Clean the mussels: run them under cold water (don’t let them sit in cold water – they’ll drown! Remember, they’re not freshwater creatures.), scrub ’em with a brush, pick off the byssal fibers – that’s the stuff they secrete to hook themselves to rocks in mussel-clumps. Sometimes we call that the beard, but I’ve never heard of any closeted mussels in lavender marriages. Heteronormative, oppressive jokes are okay when they’re about bivalves! … Right?

2. Prep the veg: I’ve cut enough onions and garlic to figure that you don’t need to see how it’s done at this point, but perhaps you’ve never encountered a bulb of fennel – or maybe you’ve poked fun at it in the supermarket and never taken it home. It is, I will admit, kind of silly-looking – the sort of vegetable that Hayao Miyazaki might invent. Anyway, trim the fronds with your knife so all you have is the bulb. It doesn’t look so weird now, does it? Denuded of its fluffy green hackle, it resembles nothing so much as a friendly old onion. Treat it the same way – bisect the thing, root-end to frond-end, lay it on its flat side, and dice it.

Choppity chop chop.
3. Heat a sturdy cast-iron dutch oven on the stove, and once it’s gotten nice and toasty, add the oil; you could, if you like, throw in the spices now, and flavor the oil – I also see no reason why you couldn’t throw in whole spices here, like cumin seed or coriander. Saute the aromatics (the onion and the garlic), the spices, and the fennel over medium-high heat, until the onion and fennel are soft, about ten minutes.

Aaand there we are.

4. Add the coconut mik and diced tomatoes, stir to combine, and allow the broth to come to a boil.

The by-now customary BLUAAAARGH.

Plop in the mussels, let it come back to a boil, and then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam for eight to ten minutes. After making several batches of mussels, I’ve determined that you probably have to go overboard by a factor of five minutes to seven minutes in order to overcook the things, so I wouldn’t really worry about a twelve-minute cooking time.  These things cook quickly, sure, but you’re not going to turn them into rubber with an extra thirty seconds to a minute of cooking.  Kill the heat, and add the basil, and a smallish handful of those feathery fennel fronds, chopped.

Adding the basil

5.  Ladle mussels into bowls, pouring maybe a quarter-cup of broth over them. Serve with naan, and a smile on your face.

My apologies to the people of India.  Accept this tasty bowl of mussels as my way of saying sorry.

Reserve that mussel broth, too, when you’re done. I seem to recall someone telling me once that cooked mussels don’t keep very well. This is BS – they’re perfectly fine for a couple of days; just store them in broth, plucked from their shells. I’ve got plans for that stuff.

Fun with Coconuts.

April 30, 2011

(or, Pumping Up Your Mussels)

You’ll never see a can of coconut milk for under a dollar.  Not the good kind.  -Sure, there’s the Roland Classic kind, which sometimes sells for 99 cents, but that brand has guar gum in it, which artificially thickens and emulsifies the coconut milk.  A sign of good coconut milk, surprisingly, is that it doesn’t emulsify – when you open the can, you should see a nice, chunky cap of solid coconut fat.  This is called the head.  What’s great about this is you can use this head to start a curry – you gently fry the curry paste in the coconut fat and let the aromatics bloom.  The rest of the can – the thinner, more watery milk – is used to make up the liquid body of whatever dish you’re making.

Anyway, a good can of coconut milk, like a 14-ounce can, will probably run you about $2.19, in 2011 dollars (assuming that, y’know, those of you reading in the future haven’t switched over to beaver pelts or the bimetallic standard, and you still know what a U.S. dollar is).  I wondered about coconut milk – why was it more expensive than a can of chicken broth?  Well, probably, first of all, economies of scale and the relative popularity of chicken broth (as well as a surplus of unused bones from all those boneless-skinless chicken bits) account for that.  But perhaps, too, it was more effort to make a can’s worth of coconut milk than a can’s worth of chicken stock.  I resolved to find out.

Doctor, I've got the strangest pain in my forehead and I can't figure it out.

A single coconut at HarvesTime, my local grocery store, cost $1.29.  Cackling, I drove a screwdriver into one of its three eyes – those sunken, dimply patches on the coconut, and drained the water.

Here’s an important distinction: many people think that if you poke a hole in a coconut, coconut milk comes out.  This isn’t so; a coconut is full of water.  What we call coconut milk is the meat of the coconut, which has been ground into a pulp with plenty of water and strained.

This is what comes out of a coconut:

Coconut spinal tap.  Yeah, I bet you weren't thinking that.  Now you are, and I'm not sorry for it.

It seems like there have been al sorts of coconut-based drinks cropping up these days – coconut water has lots of potassium and electrolytes, so it’s being touted as a sort of low-carbohydrate, all-natural Gatorade.  People have been drinking coconut water in Southeast Asia since the earth was young, but I’ll say this: a mature coconut is probably not your ideal vector for coconut water.  You want to get your coconut juice from a young, green coconut, because this stuff was – I’ll be the first to admit it – slightly vile.

I'll see what the younger-coconut stuff tastes like soon.

It was bitter, salty, and kinda funky.  Not one to waste anything in my kitchen, I quickly realized that the only way to make it potable was to make the coconut water into a cocktail.

The Man Friday
The Set-Up

  • The juice from one mature coconut
  • 1 oz heavy cream
  • 2 oz Malibu coconut rum

The Heist

  1. Mix or shake ingredients together until well-blended.
  2. Serve over cracked ice.

 I missed a really obvious "Lime in the Coconut" opportuntity here.  Look, we can't all bat 1.000, people.

Fortified with my cocktail, I picked up the coconut’s worst nightmare – a claw hammer.  Having made sure that the coconut was mostly empty of juice (this is best done over the sink, or outside), I rapped the coconut sharply around its circumference with the claw portion of the hammer, until I had made enough cracks in the shell to peel it off, or twist the thing in half.

What remains is a ball of coconut meat, slathered all over its surface with what looks like Crisco – this is raw coconut fat.

Try to scrape as much  of it as you can off of the inner black husk.

With a knife or a pastry scraper, cut the coconut in half and start breaking it into pieces.  You can see the big hollow where the coconut juice had been.

I know this is going to sound strange, but I swear it smelled and tasted very much like romano cheese.  Don't ask me why that is.

At this point, the coconut goes into a food processor; I used my girlfriend’s 3-cup mini-prep, since it lives at my apartment now.  She used to work at Williams-Sonoma, and suffers from an unfortunate condition; she possesses altogether too much kitchen equipment for her apartment.  I swear this isn’t why I’m dating her.  (Hi, honey.)

Mix the coconut meat with water until it’s a completely smooth, blended mixture, about the consistency of thin pancake batter.  This needs more water:

Much more.

Eventually it’ll get to looking like this.

Ooh, baby.

Now, this coconut milk still has all of those pesky coconut solids in it, and you’re going to want to isolate those for later.  This means you’ll have to strain them, through a method that I have become more and more comfortable with – pouring the whole mess into a (clean!) kitchen towel and squeezing it dry.

Things about to get MESSY up in this kitchen.

It’s sort of unfortunate, y’know; I blame my old college roommate David for this – every time I pour some kind of chunky solution into a container, I will invariably think, or make aloud, some noise similar to “Bluaaaargh,” as though the first container is throwing up into the second one.  Thanks, Dave.


Now you’re doing it too, aren’t you?  I’m sorry.  I’m a jerk.

I'm kidding.  I'm not sorry.  I'm never sorry.

Now, squeeze!  Squeeze for great justice!  What goes into the bowl beneath is marvelous, fresh, fatty, and fine: it’s coconut milk, and you did it!  You did it, you son-of-a-gun in your gray flannel suit.  You’ve created coconut milk, and it only cost you about half an hour of your time, as well as the use of a hammer, a clean towel that you’ll have to wash, and the use of a food processor.  Time is your greatest currency in the kitchen, next to, y’know, actual currency. 

So is this really worth it to do on a regular basis?  I certainly don’t think so.  Might be if I’d started with, like, ten coconuts – but really!  What would I do with all of that at once?  The argument for canned coconut milk gets pretty compelling; you start to see where that cost comes in.  But every once in a while?  Heck!  Why not?  It’s fun to do!

You know, I bet if you had one of those fancy juicer machines, you could probably make pretty quick work of a coconut.

Reserve the coconut meat for later.  It’s unsweetened, so it’s got this sort of nutty, raw flavor.  It’s good, but best if you mix it with things.  We’ll come back to that.

Let’s take an abrupt left turn to talk about mussels.  Mussels are cheap, plentiful, sustainable, and delicious.  I’m not exactly sure when I first started eating mussels, because I’m pretty sure I found them sort of terrifying for most of my childhood.  At some point, I came to the realization that they were, in fact, fantastic – briny, rich, tender, and pretty easy to do well.  I’ve been making them in my own kitchen for just under a few months, and I have yet to screw them up.

It just so happens that the Fish Guy Market on N. Elston has a special on mussels every week – I’m actually hesitant to tell you the day, because I’m worried you’ll snatch up all the mussels before I get there.

So I’ve started making mussels every week, because, for goodness’ sake, they’re 5 bucks a pound, and far cheaper than that on the coasts.  Two pounds of mussels easily serves four people, given a loaf of good bread and a tasty vegetal side dish.

So I’m going to do just what Francis Lam says (click the word sustainable three paragraphs up) and explore pretty much every flavor combination I can possibly throw at the mussel.

This week, it’s red curry mussels!

Red Curry Mussels with Coconut Milk and Prosecco

Adapted from this Bobby Flay recipe

The Set-Up

Not only am I ripping off Food52 by styling the ingredients this way, it's also a good reminder to get all your prepwork (your mise en place) before you start cooking.

  • 2 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (I used Maesri brand)
  • 1 1/2 cups painstakingly-prepared coconut milk, or one 14-oz can (like Chaokoh brand)
  • 1/2 cup prosecco, or slightly less-fizzy white wine, like vinho verde.
  • 1 to 1-and-1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • one big handful basil leaves (thai or italian will do)

The Heist

  1. Heat your favorite dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add some vegetable oil of your choice or melt a bit of the coconut milk’s fatty head.  Once it renders, add the ginger and curry paste and fry till fragrant, about a minute and a half.
    I swear this is one of my favorite smells.
  2. Add in the fish sauce – the original recipe calls for a full two tablespoons, and I feel that this makes the pursuant broth rather a bit too salty for my liking.
    Not my hand; note the total lack of fur.
  3. Add the coconut milk, and smile as the fragrance of the tropics wafts through your kitchen.
    This broth tastes so good.  How could it not?
  4. Add the wine.  I used prosecco, because it’s what was available – it was pleasant and dry!  I’m not sure if the bubbliness does anything, but prosecco has a nice dryness to it – a mild bitterness that does well here.  Bring everything to a boil.
    Blub blub blub.
  5. Once the liquid is at a boil, add the mussels and heat till boiling again.
    The mussels have the right idea.  I would totally take a bath in that, if it weren't 200-plus degrees, and it wouldn't result in my being eaten by other people.
  6. Cover and cook for five to ten minutes, shaking the pan every once in a while.  Lodge, send me some money.
    C'mon, seriously.  Your product looks so good in this shot.  And hey!  Next to that dutch oven?  Why, I believe that's a Lodge Brand Cast-Iron Skillet!  Good gracious I use your products often.
  7. You’re looking for most of the mussels to open, but not all of them have to.  If you like, separate out the cooked ones and leave the closed ones in the pot for more cooking.  Don’t waste your time if they don’t open after that, though – chuck ‘em.Chiffonade the basil (cut it into ribbons) and toss it into the pot, and mix everything together.You guys it's confetti you guys
  8. Ladle mussels into serving bowls, pour the lovely, fragrant broth over it, and serve with slices of crusty bread.  Enjoy with the rest of the Prosecco.


There’s certain to be more mussel posts on here; I don’t know where they’ve been all my life, honestly.


Oh!  And that leftover coconut meat from earlier?  I used some of it in some tembleque.  Tembleque is a Puerto Rican dessert I first learned about when I made it with my friend Rafa last Thanksgiving; it’s a delicate coconut pudding.  You make it by cooking coconut milk with cornstarch until it sets up; I cheated and used the Goya box mix, because it was a last-minute impulse buy.  It’s basically stovetop just-add-milk pudding mix; I added some coconut meat to give it some more body, portioned it into ramekins, and unmolded it like a flan.  It’s called tembleque because it trembles so much when you jiggle the plate.  It’s kind of fun just to poke it with a spoon.  Makes y’feel like Dr. Cosby.  Kinda.


I made Jell-O from a coconut!  Rudy!  Rudy, come see!