Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Moules No More

My self-guided culinary journey resulted in fatality two weeks ago when I suffocated three pounds of live mussels. Although I do not feel quite as guilty as perhaps Elliot Spitzer feels at this exact moment, my moral compass has been disjointed. I felt bad that my faux pas resulted in the unnecessary death of three pounds of mussels. Or maybe I’m just more upset that I blew $18 on mussels, $15 on saffron not to mention the $20 bottle of wine for what I had hoped would be a culinary masterpiece. (Actually, the $20 bottle of wine did not go to waste!) My excuse, total inexperience.

I had been looking forward to preparing mussels for some time. I read several tips about cleaning, removing sand and ensuring that the mussels were tightly sealed shut prior to steaming in order to avoid certain foodborne illness. I clearly got the message that eating mussels can be a bit dicey! In fact, I only finally got the nerve to try my hat at preparing mussels after watching Ina Garten prepare Moules à la Marinière on a recent episode of Barefoot Contessa. I distinctly remember Ms. Garten pulling a clear plastic bag full of mussels from her refrigerator. Despite my taking copious notes throughout the episode, I do not remember whether she commented on the storage of mussels. One small hint: that would not be in a clear plastic bag wrapped in butcher paper and stored on the top shelf of your refrigerator for over 24 hours.

It was Sunday night - Oscar night. What a perfect evening for an Oscar party à deux of mussels, white wine and fresh sourdough bread. A week before the intimate affair, I placed an order with my local butcher for three pounds of mussels to be delivered Friday. I was running late, so I waited to pick up my order the following Saturday morning. (In case it is unclear, this would be my first mistake.) When I arrived at the market, my butcher handed me my order, which was already sealed. I was asked if I would like to take a look at the mussels, to which I stupidly responded, “no, that’s okay.” (Mistake No. 2) I returned home, put the package in my refrigerator and did not bother to look at the mussels until Sunday afternoon, which was over 24 hours later. (Mistake No. 3)

When I opened the package, I noticed that some of the mussels were open and the scent of sea water was very strong – looking back, maybe too strong? As I further studied the package, I noticed more and more mussels had already opened. I thought, hmmm, maybe they just need to be soaked and the shells will close back up. Seriously. So I proceeded to soak the dead mussels in water with flour to remove sand. An hour later, there was very little sand in the bottom of the pot. I discovered why – the sand was in the clear plastic bag that they had been sitting in for over 48 hours! One-by-one I removed the mussels from the pot to find all but seven of the shells open. It was a holocaust!

We threw out the mussels and I went online to find out what I did wrong. There it was in black and white and color: you are supposed to remove the mussels from the plastic bag and store them in a damp towel in the refrigerator so that they can breathe!

I feel like I have no culinary common sense.

The night was not an entire loss. My husband made a delicious chili, which we enjoyed with cold beer. (I think he was relieved that the mussels didn’t work out!)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Pomegranate Jelly

My joy and excitement of being newly married was tempered rather suddenly in October 2007, when my husband lost his mother to a massive stroke. Ma belle-mere was a creative woman and extremely skilled in the “dying” crafts of sewing, quilting, knitting, preserving, canning and baking. I say “dying” because in this century, urban women are focused on billable hours, partnership track, and dealing with the incessant and yet archaic male chauvinist pig syndrome. We shop on the internet and covet gift cards. Gone are the days of holiday baking for the neighbors – for that matter, gone are the days of even knowing your neighbors! In any event, I admired my mother-in-law’s skills very much and felt a tremendous loss when she passed away knowing that I would never be able to spend that time in the kitchen with her, talking, laughing, and most of all sharing her secrets of baking and cooking.

One of her favorite seasonal things to make for family and friends was pomegranate jelly. (We still have few jars of her prized jelly in the freezer.) As such, this past Christmas I decided to make her famous pomegranate jelly and give jars of it out as Christmas gifts to my in-laws and friends.

My adventure began by picking all of the pomegranates off our tree. That was the easy work. The next job was to remove the seeds from the fruit. This is no small task! Remembering a “how-to” tip I saw on, I put a bowl of water in the sink. I then cut one of the pomegranates in half; put one of the halves upside down in the palm of my left hand and (using a wooden spoon) pounded the back of the pomegranate with my right hand. The seeds do come out better and faster than if you try to remove them one-by-one, but you have to break apart and “work” the pomegranate halve a bit in order to retrieve the under-layers of seeds. This step is repeated for each halve of each pomegranate. This is not a big deal if you only need a few seeds for a champagne cocktail or a salad dressing. Making jelly is another story. (I gained an incredible respect for my mother-in-law who must have made hundreds of jars of this jelly over her life-time!) It took me about five (5) hours –which I split up over the course of 4 week-nights –to de-seed approximately 35 pomegranates. (This amount resulted in approximately 3 ½ cups of pomegranate juice – enough for 12 jars of jelly.)

Now, if you do this at home, don’t underestimate the staining that results from pomegranate juice. Shortly after this process, I was nearly refused service at a nail salon after they took one look at my “yellowed” cuticles and thought I had some horrible fungus. Their concerns (which were exaggerated by stares, giggling and low-toned conversations in Vietnamese across the entire salon) even caused me to question the source of this yellowing; was it really the pomegranates, or had I contracted some flesh-eating disease? I was mortified as I left the nail salon and the manicurist said to me “I hope that goes away soon.” To which I responded in the same low-toned voice, “yeah, you too bitch!”

I have no complaints about the work involved in making this fabulous jelly. (I didn’t even mention my first-time experience with jarring and pectin) In fact, it was a sheer joy for me to be a part of this dying art, of giving someone a gift that I made by hand, with loads of love and in honor of my mother-in-law. I may try strawberry preserves next, but there is nothing like the flavor and ruby-red color of pomegranate jelly. A gift that my mother-in-law once told me, “you should always treasure.”