Saturday, March 30, 2013

Check out my mussels

Awhile back -- goodness, nearly two months ago, now that I look at the calendar! -- I hosted my second beer dinner of the season. (I was especially proud of myself for including some Tall, Dark, and Belgian in 3 separate elements: mustard, mussel sauce, and bread.) What is more suited to a beer dinner than mussels steamed in Belgian-style beer? I couldn't tell ya. Plus, it was high time to break in the new cast-iron skillet from Cousin Sonia.... It's hard to go wrong when you start a sauce with some thick-cut, pastured bacon.

I love beer. And bacon. And, lord, do I love mussels. Mind you, I had recently decided that I would NOT be ordering mussels OUT anytime soon, following my reading of the scandalous chapter of Kitchen Confidential that detailed the horrific practices of mussel storage common in the restaurant industry. They sit in the fridge in a bowl of their own excrement, to give you the long and short of it. Ick! As if there were not enough things keeping me up at night. (I had read up on how one should safely and hygienically store live bivalves in the fridge: in a colander with plenty of airflow and a damp towel on top.)

The evening before the dinner, as Kenton and I picked up a couple of pounds of fresh mussels at the local Whole Foods, I got to thinking about clams and mussels that I regularly saw sold live on beds of crushed ice, right out there in the open air. "How it is that they stay alive out of the water, and in my fridge for a day or two?" I mused. Kenton was stumped as well. So were our dinner guests when I posed the question during our beer floats. I pondered, I looked online. Nada. So I called in the experts. I recently got a note back from my friend -- and card carrying seafood aficionado -- Marco, of Taylor Shellfish, with an explanation:

"To answer your question, mussels, clams and oysters are adapted to the intertidal environment. This means that twice a day they are out of the water for a few hours (more or less). Because of this they are very good at sealing their shells tight shut with a small drink of salty water. When you steam mussels with beer this salty “liquor” mixes with the beer and make that tasty broth that soaks into crusty bread so well. (I have recently gone gluten free, so I now only dream about soaking up mussel broth with crusty bread, but alas.)

In any case, the short answer is that the same kinds of shellfish that are well adapted to the intertidal environment also tends to have a long “shelf life,” and if properly handled can last for days out of the water."

Hmmm. Makes sense. Clearly this food educator still has much to learn -- thanks for the explanation, Marco. And happy (almost) Easter, readers! Hope you learned something today. I did.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cutting the mustard

Readers, please don't think for a moment that I have abandoned you. Tales are forthcoming about community garden workdays and cooking lessons and working with various farmers markets leading up to the start of the season. (Farmers' market season, that is, though tax season is also breathing down my neck.)

Today -- or tonight, rather -- I offer a simple recipe, one which I have been fiddling with for a couple of years now. I recall the evening my friend Vinnie and his partner had me over for dinner those many nights ago, toward the end of which I left with an old issue of Saveur magazine that contained the base recipe for my now much beloved mustard recipe. There are a few standard ingredients -- namely, the ground spices -- and there are some variables: 1) mustard seeds, 2) vinegar, and 3) beer. The variations on this theme are endless.

The original recipe calls for stout, brown mustard seeds, and red wine vinegar. I tried that the first time and it was inarguably delicious. I gave most of it away as Christmas gifts that first winter. Necessity -- i.e., it being too cold out some nights to head out on my bike when I'd sense the first tinglings of a mustard craving -- has led me to try everything from balsamic to apple cider vinegar, and all kinds of mixes in between. I've sometimes snagged a few cups of yellow mustard seeds, and other times the smaller dark seeds, and still other times a mix of the two from dad (who should probably start buying stock in bulk mustard seed, considering his frequenting of the Middle Eastern spice shop since I picked up this mustard making habit). I've experimented with porters, English ales, apricot ales, my own pumpkin ale. Most recently, one of the last bottles of the Tall, Dark, and Belgian made its way into a batch of exceptionally spicy, stone-ground mustard. (The real secret that puts the current batch over the top? Garple.) Slathered on corned beef for a St. Patrick's Day gathering or two this weekend, stirred into horseradish for a sandwich, or mixed into salad dressings, I assure you, this mustard holds its own.

Okay, enough stalling: here's the recipe so you can make your own
Basic Spicy Mustard


  • 12-ounce bottle of beer
  • 1 1/2 cups whole mustard seed
  • 1 cup vinegar
  • 1 TBSP salt
  • 1 TBSP freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice

Combine all ingredients in a glass, plastic, or ceramic mixing bowl (or if you're really careful with the beer pouring, this fits EXACTLY into a glass quart jar -- yeah, I just threw down that challenge).

Cover with a towel or recycled sandwich bag and let the mixture sit on your counter for about 2 days. This allows the flavors to talk to each other and the mustard seeds to soften.

Puree in a food processor, pausing occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. After about 3 minutes, you'll suddenly see the mustard thicken and become creamy. (It's kind of like magic. At least Kenton and I think so.) You're done! And friends and family will be so impressed, while you secretly know all it took were a few simple ingredients and a couple days of patience.

You can smear some on a sandwich right then, but be sure to put the rest into a glass container, or a few smaller containers, and store in the refrigerator. It starts off quite spicy, but it'll mellow after a few weeks. Use it within about 6 months... not that I've had ANY mustard last that long around here....