Most days, my high school art history teacher would pull up a stool next to the slide projector, flip off the lights, and show us the world through art. Byzantine, Baroque, Post-expressionism – a personal favorite. It quickly became one of the most rewarding classes. How many people can recognize a Modigliani by looking at the painted subject’s eyes or pick out a Caravaggio?
But that’s not the only thing I learned.
Every now and then a slide of a statue would pop up, and she’d say the same thing: Look behind the statue. The back! Everyone crowds around the front of Venus de Milo and David, but what about the back? The sculptor had to spend time carving, perfecting, and well, perfecting the behind, too. On my trip to the Louvre, I remembered my teacher’s advice, and you’d know where to find me.
Well, I’m here to tell you, the same thing is true for cookbooks! Look at the back.
I’ve had my copy of Julia Child’s masterpiece for a few months now, and we’ve made her Moules à la Marinière several times. But until yesterday, I hadn’t looked at the back of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. On the back cover of this 40th anniversary edition, there’s a photo of Julia. Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck are hovering with her over pots, tasting spoons in hand. To make it even better, Julia’s husband, Paul, took this photo!
So, all this is to pass along my art history teacher’s bit of advice and to remind myself. Also, mussels. I’d like to remind you to try steamed mussels, if you haven’t already.
Every time we have this for dinner it feels elegant. After a little chopping and cleaning the mussels, it’s just a few minutes before dinner is ready. Julia recommends soaking the mussels for quite a while. We’ve tried this before, and we’ve even tried adding a bit of flour to the soaking water, hoping the mussels will eat and fatten up just a bit more, but now I skip the soaking step. Most mussels you’ll find at a grocery store are farm raised, and they’re not carrying as much grit as Julia’s mussels would have. You can just give them a quick rinse under cool running water.
The recipe in the book serves 6 to 8, but we broke it down for two. Amelia’s post was a helpful reference for that, except that it reminded me I am not flying to Paris the day after moules. Still, the moules make you feel like you’re somewhere else, especially if you eat outside. So, we used two pounds of mussels to serve two at $3.99 a pound. Not bad. And the guys working behind the seafood counter are always the chattiest, so there’s that.
“Mussels, with their long, oval, blue-black shells and delicious pink-orange flesh are often called the poor man’s oyster.”
The buttery, herbal sauce infused with juices of mussels at the bottom of the pot, you’ll need a spoon and plenty of bread for that. You can not have the mussels without it. Julia mentions that mussels are often thought of as the poor man’s oyster, but it always feels pretty luxurious when we make these. And if you asked me how many times I’d served either at home? Well, it’s mussels 5, oysters 0.
There is the matter of debearding the mussels. Not a big deal. Wipe down a mussel and find the little brown tuft of hairs sticking out one side. Tug firmly and pull away the beard. Some are bigger than others. If the mussel isn’t giving it up, use a paper towel to give you a better grip around the beard. It’s kind of fun wrestling with the mussels.
For wine, I like using a Muscadet as it’s a classic pairing with shellfish, and it’s my favorite white wine at the moment. The taste is clean and crisp, and it’s what I prefer to cook the mussels in, too.
That art history class ended almost 10 years ago, but I can still picture my teacher’s muumuus and her lessons have stuck. I was so happy to remember Ms. Diaz as we were getting ready for dinner. Maybe you’ll think of her next time you’re in a museum or tugging at mussels with a good book by your side.
moules à la marinière (fresh mussels steamed open in wine and flavorings)
We’ve made Julia’s mussels a few times, and they’re always delicious. For dinner, it’s elegant, quick, and satisfying. I added a bit of flour to the pot to help thicken the sauce a bit since it seemed thicker when we tried it at a restaurant, but it’s not a necessary step. As for soaking the mussels, we’ve tried with or without this step, and you can likely skip it because the mussels you’ll buy are farm raised and not so gritty. To debeard the mussels, find the tuft of brown little hair on one side and firmly tug at it until you yank it off. Use a paper towel if you need a better grip.
1 cup dry white wine, a Muscadet is great
1/4 cup minced shallots or green onions or finely minced onions
a couple of parsley sprigs
1/2 teaspoon thyme
dash of black pepper
3 tablespoons butter, plus more for serving
1 or 2 teaspoons flour
2 pounds mussels, debearded
1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley
Place the mussels in a large bowl, discarding any with cracked shells or ones that won’t close after being firmly tapped a few times on the counter. Most mussels you’ll find at the grocery store are farm raised and don’t really need to soak to remove grit, but if you’d like, place the mussels in a large bowl with water to soak for about an hour.
Bring all but the last two ingredients to a boil in a Dutch oven or large pot. Give it a quick stir to melt the butter and blend the flour. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, letting some of the alcohol evaporate. Add the mussels and immediately cover. Frequently toss shake the pot to toss the mussels, making sure to hold down tightly the cover and the sides of the pot. Shake it up and down a bit to really move the mussels around. After 3 to 5 minutes, the shells will swing open, just like Julia says, and the mussels are done.
Use a ladle or large spoon to divide the mussels between two large, wide soup bowls. Pour the liquid in the pot over the mussels, and reserve some in a small bowl for easy dipping. Sprinkle the parsley over the mussels. Serve immediately with French bread, butter, and a fork and spoon.
Serves 2. Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child.