December 8, 2012

Mussels, an aphrodisiac

Last weekend, my mother told me that at the rate I was going, I'd never get married. She was kidding (I hope), but I’ll admit that the woman has a point. My love life is bleak. Step into my apartment on any given day and don’t be surprised to find a group of ladies snuggled up on the sofa, wine in hand, recounting stories of failed first dates and lamenting their singledom by collectively ordering take out. Lately, we’ve moved onto heated discussions centered on interior decorating.

But in the spirit of taking life as it comes, and keeping a sense of humor about it–albeit a self-deprecating one–today I invited one of my girlfriends over for dinner, specifically, for steamed mussels, which are a natural aphrodisiac. (Oh, the irony!)

Shellfish, most notably, oysters, have long been considered to be foods of love. In ancient Rome, raw oysters were exceedingly popular, and were, according to the satirist, Juvenal, largely responsible for the wanton ways of drunken women. Centuries later, the wives' tales persisted, and Casanova himself reportedly made a habit of consuming five-dozen raw oysters each morning at breakfast to keep up his prowess.

As for how these rumors began, much credit goes to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, desire and beauty, who rose from the sea foam and rode an enormous seashell to shore. Though I generally assume that she traveled on a scallop shell, as is depicted in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the vessel is often referenced in literature as a cockleshell, and at times, a mussel shell. Mollusks, because of their suggestive shape, not to mention their slippery texture, have historically been associated with sexuality, particularly female sexuality.

In fact, during the Middle Ages, the old English word for mussel (“mossel”) also meant “vulva.” So prevalent were these superstitions that if you look closely at the 500-year-old triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, you’ll notice a naked man carrying away (or possibly stealing, by the look of it) an enormous mussel suspended on his back. Protruding from the shell, there is a half-visible naked womanthe bottom half, that is, in case you're curiousflanked by pearls, with her feet flailing behind her.


Tonight, for our aphrodisiac-themed dinner, my friend Eva and I will be steaming our mussels in a rich white wine broth finished with parsley and cream, and serving them alongside a crusty baguette, and a cheese plate. Surely, it won't be the most romantic evening of my life, but hell, at least I'm not ordering take out.


Steamed mussels 
Serves 2

2lbs mussels, scrubbed and sorted
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup white wine
1 cup clam juice
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped

Clean and sort the mussels, scrubbing any debris from the surface and removing any mussels that are open and will not close when tapped.

Melt the butter over medium low heat in a saucepan with a lid. When the butter is melted, add the garlic and cook until softened, but not brown, about 1-2 minutes. Add in the fennel seeds, followed by the white wine and clam juice. Season with black pepper (but not with salt, as the mussels are very salty, so leave this step until the end). Turn the heat to medium and simmer until the mixture is reduced by half.

Add the mussels to the pan, cover and cook for about 5 minutes until the mussels have opened. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cream and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with crusty bread.




December 3, 2012

Crostini with marinated white anchovies

I think that my world changed when I first tried marinated white anchovies. If you think they taste like their canned cousins, then think again. They're fresher, and less pungent, and they have a wonderfully soft texture. In Spain, they're known as boquerones, and they're extremely popular as part of a tapas spread.

Seeing as they're so pretty to look at–the little filets are silver and white–I wanted to feature them in a way that really showed them off. Today, I paired the anchovies with roasted red peppers, marinated in sugar and vinegar, and added a creamy line of homemade aioli alongside. (I make a lot of crostini–in the past two years I've posted on sardines, chard, and a puttanesca-inspired bruscetta–and so it seemed like a natural way to go.)

The best part about these is that they can and should be served at room temperature, and every element can be made several hours ahead of time.


Crostini with marinated anchovies (boquerones), red pepper and aioli

a baguette, sliced very, very thinly on the diagonal, about 15-20 slices
olive oil
15-20 white anchovies
marinated red bell pepper slices (recipe follows)
aioli (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the bread slices very lightly with olive oil, place on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until browned and crisp. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the slices to cool.

Fill a plastic ziploc bag with aioli and cut a 1/8 inch piece from the corner of the bag to create a small hole. Pipe the aioli onto the bread slices. Beside it, place an anchovy and a slice of red bell pepper. Serve.

Marinated red bell pepper

1 red bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar

On the grill, under the broiler or directly on the burner of a gas stove, char the pepper all over until it's entirely blackened. Place it in a brown paper bag and fold the top closed. Let the pepper steam for at least 10 minutes before peeling.

Peel the bell pepper using the back of a knife (don't rinse the pepper to remove the skin) and slice it into 1/4 inch strips.

Place the pepper strips in a small bowl with the remaining ingredients and allow them to marinate for at least an hour.

Aioli

1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
small garlic clove, minced or grated
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola

Whisk together the egg yolk, salt, mustard, garlic and cayenne in a small bowl. Place the oils in a liquid measuring cup with a spout. Whisking constantly, begin pouring the oil into the egg mixture drop by drop in a very thin stream until it begins to emulsify. Continue until all of the oil has been incorporated and the aioli has thickened. Season again with salt to taste, if necessary.

October 31, 2012

It's just not Halloween without pumpkins

It's difficult to think of a foodstuff that is as season-specific, and yet as culinarily versatile, as the pumpkin. Last year, the top six pumpkin producing states yielded a whopping 1.07 billion pounds of pumpkins grown across more than 51,000 acres, valued at approximately $113 million. What's even more amazing is the estimate that 80 percent of these pumpkins were available in the month of October.

The majority of these of course are carving pumpkins, which are much less tender and flavorful than the smaller sugar, or pie pumpkins, that are used for cooking. However, just as we would never dream of carving a pumpkin in March, it's equally difficult to imagine a Halloween without Jack-o-Lanterns, or a Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.

The tradition of carving pumpkins on Halloween (which arrived in America in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of Irish immigrants, who'd long harbored traditions of carving potatoes and turnips) is relatively new to this country, and the holiday as we know it, with costumes, trick-or-treating and apple bobbing, really didn't begin to evolve until after World War II. Similarly, many of the culinary applications for pumpkin are fairly new. After all, I don't exactly remember growing up with pumpkin soy lattes; needless to say, they are a relatively new invention.

Though pumpkins were always an important part of the Early American diet–the Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to cook and eat this New World food–early recipes were a far cry from the ones that we are familiar with today. A common preparation involved cutting a small hole out of the pumpkin, scraping out the seeds and roasting it whole over ashes, sometimes with sugar, milk or butter poured into the cavity, to soften the flesh. Occasionally the rinds were pickled, and nineteenth-century cookbooks offered recipes for mashed pumpkin, similar to mashed potatoes, and pumpkin soup.

Fast forward to present day, and we have a myriad of pumpkin inflected recipes, and they're not just limited to pie. It seems that almost anything can be made with pumpkin nowadays (provided, of course, that it's prepared between September and New Years). Risotto, chili, pancakes, creme brulee, and of course coffee, might be spiked with pumpkin. I'd even hedge a guess that for most cooks, preparing a pumpkin-themed dish is not only expected, but possibly even required during the holiday season.

This year, I took this to heart, and I whipped up an incredibly easy creamy pumpkin soup. (During a hurricane, mind you, it was an exceptionally comforting dish.) It's worth the effort – after all, pumpkins will only be here for a few more months.



Creamy pumpkin soup

1 4-5lb sugar pumpkin, halved, seeds removed
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek, rinsed and sliced
1 apple, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 carrot, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch each of ground nutmeg and ginger
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place each pumpkin half face down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and roast until tender, about 45 to 50 minutes. Set aside and allow the pumpkin to cool.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add in the leek, apple and carrot, along with a large pinch of salt and black pepper, and cook until tender. When the leeks are translucent and the carrots are just tender (not necessarily soft, just crisp tender), add in the cumin, nutmeg and ginger. Cook for an additional minute, and then add the stock.

Scrape the soft pumpkin out of its skin and add it to the soup mixture. Simmer until the carrots are very tender. Carefully transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. (Alternatively, it can be passed through a food mill, or pureed using an immersion blender.) Return the soup to the pot. Add in the cream, if using, and season with salt and pepper

Serve with pumpkin seeds, a bit of fresh thyme and a spoonful of crème fraîche, as pictured here, or with croutons or a nice loaf of bread.