The first time I ever made mussels, I was in college. It was my sophomore year and I was sharing a 2 bedroom/2 bathroom suite with three other girls in a building called The Dakota. I remember the name mostly because on parent's visitation day, one of the girl's father commented that our building was a "very famous" one and that he thought "someone famous once lived" there.
I remember humoring him when he said this, even though I knew that he was really thinking of John Lennon's Dakota by Central Park, not our mid-century Washington, DC condo. He was one of those terrible dads who earlier that summer had used my roommate's social security number to get himself a credit card, but on that day, everyone was all smiles so I figured I ought not rock the boat.
Of the four girls, I was the only one who ever really used the kitchen. My favorite roommate spent all her time with her boyfriend. The fourth roommate seemed to be perpetually going on or returning from overseas expeditions. And the other girl (the one with the deadbeat dad) stuck to an odd diet of Skippy peanut butter, white bread, and frozen vegetarian nuggets that she defrosted in the microwave.
I was fine with this arrangement, which left me with a full kitchen (with dishwasher and trash disposal!) and fridge all to myself (except for the nuggets), and spent most of my days baking cakes, roasting chickens, and stirring large pots of risotto.
I'd been cooking quite a bit since I was in high school, but until then I'd never really cooked any seafood by myself. Lately though, each time I went grocery shopping, I felt myself being drawn towards the large fresh seafood counter. It took me a while to work up the courage, but I finally did it; marching straight up to the counter one afternoon, I stared at the options trying to make a decision. Before I was ready, the fishmonger caught me by surprise, and in a panic I pointed to the first thing I saw: a bed of shiny blue-black mussels tied in little net sacks and piled like pebbles on the ice.
"Can I have one of those?" I asked.
He picked up a sack and swung it before me, "It's two pounds. That enough?" I nodded quickly and watched as wrapped them into a bundle of brown paper.
I felt like a grown-up as I leaned over the counter to grab the package they way my mother always did. I was a grown-up lady, buying seafood at the supermarket.
Back in my dorm that evening, I cleaned the mussels in the sink like I'd seen my mother do, scrubbing them with a wet paper towel and pulling off the little fuzzy beards that cling to the end. I heated my biggest pot and added half a bottle of white wine (purchased with my old fake ID, of course), a roughly chopped onion, a few garlic cloves, and a big handful of parsley. I then dropped the mussels in, wincing a bit as the pebbles hit the hard bottom with a clang, and slammed on the top.
When my roommate came home a bit later she found me sitting alone at the table, book in hand with a glass of white wine and my giant plate of mussels. She fixed herself a peanut butter sandwich and joined me. Looking from my plate to her sandwich, she shook her head.
"You're so much more mature than the rest of us!"
"I'm not, " I replied, acknowledging the fact that I'd skipped class to go to the market. "I just have totally different priorities."
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Steamed Mussels with White Wine, Bacon & Rosemary
Serves 2 as an entree, 4 as an appetizer
2 pounds mussels
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 strips center-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 pieces
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
5 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2-3 whole sprigs, fresh rosemary (can sub 1/4 cup dried rosemary)
2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
2.5 cups dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
3 tablespoons butter
Fresh ground pepper
1. Scrub and debeard the mussels under cold water. Discard any that are cracked or which do not close completely after being touched. (If using frozen mussels, let thaw before rinsing and cooking.) Set aside.
2. In a large dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot, heat 3 tablespoons o of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pieces of bacon and let cook until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp.
3. Add the shallots and garlic and saute until shallots are transluscent and garlic has just a hint of color (about 2-3 minutes).
4. Add wine, red pepper, and rosemary and bring to a simmer. When the wine is boiling, add the mussels to the pot and cover. Let mussels steam for 2-3 minutes, then use a spoon to toss. Recover and let steam for an additional 4 minutes, until most of the mussels have opened all the way. (there may be a couple that don't open)
5. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels to a large bowl. Discard any mussels that didn't open all the way during cooking.
6. Return the pot with the broth to the flame and whisk in the butter and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer for 2-3 minutes until slightly reduced.
Pour broth over the mussels and serve with a warmed French baguette or roasted potatoes (you need something to soak up that amazing broth!)