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: 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 a bowl of 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 where these rumors came from, 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 woman–the bottom half, that is, in case you're curious–flanked 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.
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, and white wine and clam juice. Season with black pepper (not salt, as the mussels are very salty, so leave salting to the end). Turn the heat to medium and simmer until the mixture is reduced by half.
Add in the mussels, cover the pan, and cook about 5 minutes until the mussels have opened. When they've opened, remove the pan from the heat and add the cream and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with crusty bread.