Photo by Donna (see her blog for comments on this)
I prepared a special meal for dear friends on Saturday, one of those meals that takes the better part of the day to set up. It's been a long time since I spent all day in the kitchen. Trip to the farmer's market in the morning, store all the food and shuck the corn (boil and eat half a dozen ears for breakfast, no better late summer breakfast,heaven), then start checking off the list—shuck, boil, shock, peel the lima beans, cook off the clams and strain the stock, make the corn sauce, cook off the bacon, etc. Kitchen work broken only by the forty minutes to drive my daughter to her friend's to get ready for the homecoming dance that night. Gorgeous late summer day. Long, meditative, solitary work in the kitchen, a real pleasure.
But of all the courses and the elaborate sauce work that went into the meal, the best part of it was the course that took the least amount of work—from start to finish, the course that was the most fun to eat took all of five minutes prepare, cook and serve, and underscores the supremacy of product over craft and the fact that the most important part of cooking is the shopping.
My dear friend Peter had requested lobster. Then he said, how about clams? And I said, How about braised pork belly, and Peter said, "Oooooo, that sounds good." Pork belly and shellfish would be an awesome combination. So I called my friend Ingrid who lives in Stonington, Maine, and gets the VERY best shellfish in America. Costs an arm and a leg due to shipping but we wanted the very best.
When the box arrived I found a surprise. Ingrid had miscounted her mussels orders and found she had an extra sack, which she'd thrown in with my clams and lobsters. Hers are little baby mussels which she refers to as bouchots, after the French method of growing them on ropes attached to poles. They're about two inches long and their shells are so clean they require no debearding. Best of all though is their flavor—they taste of the sea, like that fresh sea air, but above above all, they're sweet. So sweet.
That's why it's best to do as little as possible to them. They're a gift, don't get in their way, don't put them in a fancy party dress. This method works for any good mussel and the way I recommend preparing them:
Mince a shallot and put them in the bottom of a big cast iron enamel pot with a cup of white wine, a cup of light chicken stock (fresh, otherwise water or nothing), a handful of thyme and half a stick of butter. Add the mussels, cover and put over high heat. Just when the pot steams, they're ready. Serve them in big bowls with plenty of the cooking liquor and warm crusty baguette. If possible serve them outside on a late summer Saturday evening when the sun is low and golden and you are with your best friends.
The morning's fresh corn, boiled for 60 seconds, the mussels finished if a few minutes, a reminder that the best food on earth requires the least amount of effort.