julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

My, What Big Mussels You Have!

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“I don’t have much experience with mussels myself, and in the past have not been much of one for bivalves, but what the hey!” – Julie Powell

Julia Child, I’m mad at you. You’ve really done it this time. For someone who’s so big on informing the public and teaching the ways of cooking, you sure do manage to leave out some pretty important details. Take last night’s dinner, for example…

Sitting in my refrigerator was a mesh bag of mussels, just waiting to fulfill their destiny and become Moules a la Mariniere – I (fresh mussels steamed open in wine and flavorings). Have I mentioned enough times now that I am NOT familiar with cooking seafood? Let me say it one more time. I am NOT familiar with cooking seafood. Yet there I stood, MtAoFC in one hand and a bag o’ mussels in the other. Julia gives very explicit instructions on how to go about preparing mussels for cooking. “Before they can be cooked,” she writes, “mussels must have a rather long and careful cleaning process.” I opened the mesh bag and dumped the shells into a big bowl, as the first step is to sort through them and discard any that are not firmly closed.

Bowl of Fresh Mussels

The contents of the bag were pretty stinky, I have to say. And as I stood there, looking down on this bowl of shells, I could feel my anxiety level rising…it was Les Poissons all over again. Some of the shells were open, white and black creamy ooze holding the halves together. And as I lifted them out of the bowl and into a trash bag, I couldn’t help remembering the time I was a little girl and we took a field trip to the zoo. There was this large bird, out in the open, who had made a nest in a drinking fountain. I was so enthralled, I inched my way up to her, and she moved slightly so that I could see eggs in the nest! I couldn’t believe it! I took a step closer and pointed with my little finger to say, “Hey, everybody, look at this!” And do you know what that bird did? CHOMP!! She clamped that beak of hers right down onto my finger. Now, it didn’t hurt, mind you, but it surprised the heck out of me – and now, I couldn’t help noticing the uncanny resemblance between the black shells of the mussels and the black beak of that bird.

So I gingerly lifted each opened mussel out of the bowl (by the tail end) until all I had left was a bowl full of tightly shut shells. I realized I was being ridiculous – those mussels weren’t going to chomp down on my finger! Those mussels were dead!

And then I heard a strange noise coming from the bowl.

It was like a sucking sound – or a kissing sound. And that was it.

I went straight to my computer and googled “Are mussels alive when you buy them from the store?”, and I found a highly educational video in which a tattooed man showed me a neat trick – if you come across a partially opened mussel shell, tap its tail end gently on the countertop. If it closes slowly, then you know it’s alive.


I crept back to the bowl on the counter and peered inside. Some of the shells I had checked just moments ago were open. I picked up one and tapped it…and it slowly closed shut. And it was at this moment that I said out loud, “Julia Child, you dirty dog.” I mean, there are some things you should tell a person! Like, discard all the shells that aren’t firmly closed because THEY’RE DEAD ROTTING CORPSES AMONG A LIVING COLONY IN YOUR FRIDGE!!

Ahem. Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. It was at this point that I began muttering my mantra (“Must have courage; must have courage.”) and began washing all the mussels from my bowl, giving them a good scrub with a brush under running water and dropping them into a fresh bowl of cold water, where they would hang out and commiserate together for an hour until it was time to seal their fate. Once the hour was up, I would drain them in a colander, rinse them again and prepare them for the stove.

I was finally getting over my initial shock of being coerced into serving as an accomplice to murder and was about halfway through rinsing off all the mussels, when I dropped one of them down the garbage disposal. For a minute I thought about just leaving it down there, but even I could recognize the fact that that was a bad idea for so many reasons. So I grabbed a pair of tongs and proceeded to spend the next five minutes fishing it out. It was at about this point that I began calculating how long the rest of the meal would take to cook – I would HAVE to finish this before Ben got home. It was hard enough at the grocery store convincing him that mussels would be fine and dandy, but if he knew they were alive this whole time?? He wouldn’t touch ’em with a ten-foot pole. Then a second thought came to me…thank goodness we had Sunday night’s leftovers in the fridge – the chances of a mutiny in the kitchen seemed to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Luckily, my timing was just right. Once the hour was up, I combined vermouth, minced green onions, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and butter into a kettle and brought it to a boil. After a couple of minutes of letting the alcohol evaporate, I carried the bowl of cleaned mussels over to the pot…and hesitated. Then, with a quick, “Sorry, little fellas!” I dumped the mussels in and slammed a lid on top before I could change my mind.

Mussels simmering in wine sauce.

Wearing oven mitts, every now and then I would grasp the handles of the pot while holding the lid down at the same time and give the whole thing a couple of good shakes to be sure the mussels were getting even heat. Julia says within five minutes the shells will swing open, announcing that the meat is cooked – and she was right. It didn’t take long at all (thank goodness) and when I lifted the lid to check on our progress, the delicious smells wafting from inside that pot were divine. I also noticed that the juices at the bottom had thickened into what looked more like a broth.

I heated up some French bread in the oven (per Julia’s recommendation), and as an apology to Ben (I couldn’t bear to think of the look on his face when he came around the corner like a kid on Christmas morning asking, “What’s for dinner??” only to learn that Santa hadn’t brought him his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, but instead brought a stockingful of mussels) I had made a batch of potatoes au gratin (from a box). It actually had the potential to be a pretty tasty dinner…if the mussels had behaved themselves in all that wine sauce.

Then Ben came home. He came bounding into the kitchen, fooled by the yummy aroma coming from the stove, and began to look around for context clues. First he spotted the empty mesh bag on the counter, then the single pot on the stove, and looked at me woefully. “Oh, no,” he muttered. He lifted the lid off the pot and wrinkled his nose at the sight of the shriveled mussel meat inside. “Ewwwww.” I assured him it would be great, and quickly began to plate our meal. I used a slotted spoon and scooped several of the mussels into a bowl, then ladled some of the sauce from the pot over them. It was the moment of truth.

We sat in the living room in a face-off – on the count of three, we would both take a bite simultaneously. I should have known not to fall for that old trick – when “Three!” came, I was the only one to actually eat any of our dinner. And really, it wasn’t bad! I have to say that, even with an open mind, I’ve decided that I’m not much of a fan of mussels. More than anything, it’s the rubbery texture that doesn’t appeal to me. As always, the sauce was delicious, and I dipped my bread into my bowl for an extra treat.

Moules a la Mariniere - I

Ben sat there with a mussel perched on his fork, staring at it menacingly – he finally managed to get it into his mouth (by chanting, “It’s a bean, it’s a bean, it’s a bean,” as the fork neared his mouth). But the moment – and I mean, the MOMENT – he bit down into that rubbery texture, that thing came launching back out of his mouth and landed right on his shirt. There was moaning and groaning and complaining and gnashing of teeth until I said, “Listen, you have to eat one – and swallow it – and then you can have something else.” Eventually, to his credit, I have to say that he did it. He ate one good bite of mussels, then immediately washed it down with three bites of potatoes au gratin.

I’ll tell you now that I really thought I would like this dish more than I actually did – the sauce smelled so good, and the cooked mussels actually looked pretty nice. But when it came down to it, neither Ben nor I could get past the chewy texture. We agreed the sauce was good, but could concur that this dish would not be on our list of must-make-agains. Too bad. Those poor little mussels gave their all.

So Julia Child, wherever you are, I just want you to know that you’re in the doghouse. At least for today. We can be friends tomorrow – but, like a zoot-suited mobster, I’ve still got a trash bag full of carcasses to make disappear. And so, fair readers, I leave you now with a favorite childhood poem that kept running through my mind whilst preparing our dinner. (Kindly replace the word “Oysters” with “Mussels” for maximum impact.)

Until our next murderous encounter… *insert Alfred Hitchcock theme here*


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