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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Steamed Mussels with Roquefort and Pernod

I love France. I know everyone says that, but I really mean it. I have had the good fortune to have traveled extensively and have seen many places and met many wonderful people along the way. But when it comes to Europe, I have only been to France. Why? I know there are many beautiful places in Europe. I really do know that. And I really do want to see them. I know that in my lifetime, I should hoist a stein of beer in Munich during Octoberfest, see the tulips in full bloom in springtime Netherlands, and visit the Little Mermaid in Denmark, just as a start... But I feel I must be honest, the lure of France is strong.

And to my defence, I have made attempts to see other parts of Europe. Several years ago, I planned a three week trip to France and Italy. I thought spending a week in a friend’s villa several hours from Marseilles would scratch that itch. But an hour before my departure to Italy, I decided to spend another day in France. That one extra day turned out to be another two weeks and still, Italy awaits me.

The regions within France are diverse and unique with, of course, a rich culinary heritage specific to each area. I have eaten my way around this great country and enjoyed every moment of it: the verdant north east where I filled my belly with soul-warming choucroute, the pebbly beaches of the south where I munched on fresh fish and olives, the quiet rural backdrops where I tucked into my first duck confit in the farmhouse kitchen outside of Dax and everything in between. I even had the opportunity to sample cuisines introduced to France by its North Africans and Vietnamese emigres.

More than anything else, when I think of France, I think about the people I've met and the memorable meals I've eaten. I am a true food tourist and you know the type: she arrives in a new place having already well-researched what's good to eat. But not a food snob, the food tourist knows which restaurant to seek out (high end and low end) and has already researched the specialities the region has to offer. In sum, the food tourist is in pursuit of one thing: great memorable food. Sure museums, historical sites and parks are an important part of travel, but when I am away from home, I am looking for a new flavour, or a new cooking technique and of course, something I can take home to re-create in my own kitchen. In fact, I always travel with a mostly empty suitcase so that I have ample room to haul home the treasures I find in the local grocery stores, and this is never more true than when I travel to France.

Before we even arrive, I have already planned most of my meals (of course, leaving a couple of meal time slots available for a little spontaneity!) :) I will want to go back to that patisserie where we had the crisp buttery pain au chocolate last visit. And of course, we have to stop in for that tarte a l'oignon...

Unfortunately, life intervenes and traveling to France for us is not always possible. So when I want to escape away to France, even just for a meal, I long for a big bowl of steamed mussels. The ritual of eating mussels may seem like a clique but it does the trick: sitting by the French seaside fishing out a pale orange mussel from its shiny onyx and dipping salty crispy frites in the creamy broth infused with Pernod and leeks. I had this dish when we were in Normandy and it was unforgettable.

It’s been three years since we have been to France but I still think about that afternoon where my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I watched sail boats float by and lingered over a massive bowl of steamed mussels. We have been talking about going back to France for some time now and we couldn’t resist when we spied a globe-sized net crammed with briny mussels at our market today. I knew exactly what I would do with them… Perfect for lunch.

A little blue cheese, a splash of Pernod and a spoonful of crème fraiche…to pry open those plump molluscs and you can have lunch in Normandy in ten minutes.

Steamed Mussels with Roquefort Cheese & Pernod

2 lbs mussels
½ red onion
1 tbsp butter
¼ c Pernod*
1/2c water
2 tbsp Roquefort cheese, chunked
1 tbsp crème fraiche

parsley and chives to garnish

Wash mussels in cold water, pulling away beards and scraping off barnacles if there are any. Rinse again and swish around in lots of cold water. Discard any mussels that remain open. Leave mussels in a large cold bowl of water while you prep the onion.

Finely dice onion and sauté in 1 tbsp of melted butter in a large saucepan. Once softened and slightly golden, add Pernod and water. Don’t be put off by the strong licorice scent. The alcohol burns off and all that remains is a faint anise aroma. Using a slotted spoon, add the cleaned mussels to the bubbling liquid and cover. It should take about five to ten minutes.

Scoop mussels out with slotted spoon and set aside. With the remaining broth, swirl in the crème fraiche and cheese. Stir until smooth and incorporated. Pour over mussels and serve immediately.

Bring a spoon, a pile of napkins and lots of crusty baguette. You’re going to need it!

*If you don’t like pernod or you are worried about the alcohol, it evaporates completely.

1 comment:

V said...

Without realizing it, we've also graviated toward France. Most of our long holidays are actually spent in France. We've vowed to go to Italy but the calling to France is stronger.

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