Recently, my husband signed up for the monthly beer club at The Rare Barrel, a local outfit specializing in sour beer. This style of beer is crafted to maximize the acidic tang of wild fermentation–the same process that makes sauerkraut taste sour–while minimizing bitterness. The result is a brew that is light, tangy, and easy to drink. Even I, an avowed beer-hater, like this stuff. So when Sam suggested having a few friends over to help us finish this month’s beer-stash, my thoughts immediately turned to cooking with it. Specifically, mussels.
Of all the ways to cook mussels at home, it’s hard to beat simply steaming them in some flavorful liquid. For most of my mussel-eating life, that meant white wine with lots of garlic. But that’s far from the only way to go. I suspected that the light, acidic qualities of a sour beer would make it an ideal swap for dry white wine when steaming shellfish. And I was right.
Instead of the usual garlic saute, I started by sweating diced leek tops and fennel in garlic-infused oil. I threw in some chile flakes, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf, then added the beer. After steaming the mussels open in their beer-y sauna, I scooped them out of the pot and finished the broth with a few chunks of butter for richness and heft, plus a dollop of mustard for spice. (I left the aromatics in, but you could strain them out of the broth if you prefer, since both leek tops and fennel bulbs can be tough.) Then I poured the enriched broth over the mussels, added a handful of chopped parsley, and set the bowl on the table next to a loaf of spelt bread–sourdough, natch.
Although I used sour beer here, this is really a “mussels steamed with some sort of booze” recipe. If you’re a beer drinker, any good-quality ale will do. If you don’t do beer, try hard cider (preferably on the dry side) or good old white wine. And, honestly, “good-quality” is in the taste buds of the beholder. If you like it enough to drink it, go ahead and cook with it!
It’s spring, and this girl’s fancy is turning to thoughts of artichokes.
I’m a sucker for a good steamed artichoke. I love the meditativeness of it, pulling off the leaves one by one and running them between my teeth to extract the meat. I love how the leaves get tenderer and more delicate the farther along I go, how more and more of the heart-meat clings to each leaf as I approach the center. I love pulling the last few tissue-paper leaves from the top of the heart and nibbling off as much of the filmy bottoms as I can. I love scraping the choke away with a spoon, revealing the soft cupola of the heart inside. I love breaking the heart into pieces with my fingers and eating it greedily, all sweet-and-bitter and always gone too soon.
For my money, you could just plunk a whole artichoke in a pot with a thin film of water on the bottom and steam it till it’s tender. I’ve done that for years. But it’s not much of a recipe, and for you, blog readers, I wanted something special. So for this post, I sliced off the tops, half-steamed the artichokes upside down, then turned them over and drizzled a little extra virgin olive oil over the top before steaming them the rest of the way. (If I’d wanted to get really fancy, I could have trimmed the thorny tips off of each individual leaf; but that’s far too much fuss for me, since the thorns soften anyway in the steam.) It turned out surprisingly lovely; the oil sank into the crevices and formed a light film on the leaves.
You could certainly eat your artichoke naked–I often do–but the leaves are perfect for dipping, and stand up to a variety of sauces. I’ve most often had artichokes with a mayonnaise sauce, or lemon and butter, which are both very nice but not really my thing. What I love, and make most often, is a simple lemon vinaigrette. (I make it so often, in fact, that I’ve written about it here before.) It’s not much on paper: good olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and just enough honey to tame and emulsify the two. Whisk it all together, and you have a smooth and tangy dressing, perfect for anointing any number of grilled or steamed vegetables. As a dip for artichoke leaves, it’s hands-down my favorite.
This is perhaps my ideal springtime lunch: a warm steamed artichoke, a custard cup of lemon vinaigrette, a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread, and some good cheese. It really doesn’t get much better.
Every once in a while, I’ll order something at a restaurant that’s so wildly delicious, yet apparently so simple, that I’m immediately determined to recreate it at home. This dish is one of those.
Like many of my favorite food travel memories, this one happened in Barcelona. Towards the end of our stay, Sam and I decided to visit the Mercat del Born, only to discover when we got there that it was closed for renovations. Suddenly loose in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with lunchtime looming, we ducked into an upscale-looking place with the auspicious name Cafe Kafka. It was dim and calculatedly deco inside, with a floor-to-ceiling bar and a dining room outfitted in black and grey. Three words jumped off the appetizers list at me: almejas con alcachofas. Clams with artichokes. Two of my favorite foods. I couldn’t resist.
It arrived in a teeny-tiny cast iron pot: a cluster of yawning clam shells, perched on a pile of baby artichokes. The clams were chewy and lovely, as usual, but the artichokes were the real revelation–tooth-tender and almost buttery, drenched in the seawater-sweet liquor from the clams. The combination of lightly vegetal artichoke tang and garlicky salty broth made for even better bread-dunking than usual. I knew immediately I had to recreate it at home.
Unfortunately, I’m dating a bivalve-hater, so my clam experiment had to wait. But a couple weeks ago, when Sam was busy and I was tapped to make an early birthday dinner for my mom, I saw my chance. It turns out that making clams with artichokes is a little more complex than just steaming clams on top of artichokes, but not by much. It’s quick, deceptively simple, and special enough for an Occasion. Good crusty bread is absolutely not negotiable here–every drop of that sweet-salty-tangy potion at the bottom of the bowl should be savored. This may require picking up the bowl and sipping the dregs.
Cooking en papillote–in butterfly. It’s a lovely French term for a lovely French technique: wrapping food and flavorings in packets of parchment paper and baking them at high heat for a relatively brief time. The paper is cut into folded shapes like legless butterflies or enormous Valentines, then folded over a mound of raw ingredients and gently crimped around the edges. Then it goes into the oven, where the bits and pieces inside release their juices into fragrant vapor, trapped inside the packet, and delicately steam themselves. The process of cutting and assembling the packets is a bit elaborate, but they steam in a matter of minutes.
Vegetables and poultry take well to this method, I’m told, but every source I look at says the same: en papillote cooking really sings with fish. For sturdy, flaky fillets that can easily go from sashimi to sawdust with a little too much heat, cooking in parchment is a foolproof way to keep them glistening and pearly with juice. Because they’re steaming in their own juices, these fish fillets come out profoundly more flavorful than they went in. Streamlined seasonings stay subtle, not bland; aggressive ingredients get infused into the flesh of the fish.
I tried this for the first time this weekend, for my father’s birthday dinner, with red snapper fillets on a bed of leeks and fennel. I deliberately kept the seasoning simple–lemon, thyme, a splash of wine and a thin ribbon of oil–and was rewarded with a meal that smelled like a restaurant and tasted like the sea. I’ve never been much for mild white fish like snapper, precisely because I thought it had no flavor–but it does, sweet and subtle and easily masked otherwise. The most challenging part of the whole process was gauging doneness; I’m not usually comfortable going on cooking times alone, but in this case it’s more or less required.
I’ve posted an approximate recipe for what I did below, but this is really just a guideline to be traced. Any combination of fish, shellfish, vegetables, aromatics, herbs and spices, stacked together with a gloss of fat and a little extra liquid, will work beautifully in butterfly. Next time I’m thinking maybe salmon, with a puttanesca-type mixture of cherry tomatoes, olives, and capers. Or maybe Asian-style soy-steamed trout. I’ll keep you posted.