Autumn is the most volatile of seasons, and my personal favorite. As I plan my upcoming menus I go to the market as often as I can because things are changing so fast. We just used the last of the nectarines, and now apples and pears are overflowing the market stands. Not to mention grapes. Wow. We have mounds and mounds and mounds. I am dying to smoke them on the grill and add them to a grilled chicken that’s rubbed with oil and stuffed with lemons and star anise. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Stay tuned…
Planning a Menu
When I plan a menu for a meal with friends, I get to be completely selfish, because I decide first what I want to eat myself. Then I consider the guests. Recently, I had a group of ten coming for a special meal. Two are vegetarians; none are big meat eaters. I had a craving for mussels, and eggplant has never been better, so I wanted to offer both. How, I wondered.
On Paper, Makes No Sense
On paper it didn’t make sense, but at the table it was hugely successful! I steamed the mussels with garlic and bay, then added chopped, toasted hazelnuts, – my favorite way to prepare them. When I brought the huge bowl to the table, everyone’s eyes lit up, literally. “No on ever serves mussels at home,” my friend Bernard said as he scooped a small ocean’s worth of mussels on his plate. It’s true, in France mussels are primarily eaten with frites at a café or restaurant.
And Then the Eggplant
As for the eggplant, I grilled fat slices and layered them with thin-sliced tomatoes and topped them with a mixture of mozzarella and Parmigiano, my version of an eggplant Parmigiana. When it emerged from the oven, I dabbed it all over with pesto so that by the time it came to table, the pesto was running all over and making everyone swoon with its aroma.
Of course the meal was followed by cheese and salad. And dessert was fig leaf ice cream and chocolate cake. In the end it was a balanced, if somewhat unconventional menu. But as I thought it through, I wanted seasonal, colorful, fun, balanced, joy, and simple to prepare. It succeeded on all levels. I suggest those elements become your criteria for meals, because everyone wins, deliciously.
NUTTY MUSSELS – MOULES AUX NOISETTES
NOTE: The beard, or byssus, on a mussel is like a string the mussel uses to attach itself to something solid. It must be removed right before the mussel is cooked, but not in advance or the mussel will spoil. You may be able to find “cleaned” mussels. These have had their byssus cut off, so there is no need to pull it out. De-beard the mussels right before you plan to cook them, for if you do it in advance, they may spoil.
3 pounds (1.5kg) mussels, shells washed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, green germ removed if necessary
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1/3 cup (50g) hazelnuts, diced
1. De-beard the mussels right before you being to prepare the dish. Keep them in the refrigerator.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until it just begins to turn golden at the edges, a minute or two. Add the lemon juice and the bay leaf, then add the mussels to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high. Sauté the mussels until they open and most but not all of their juices have evaporated, stirring them almost constantly, 5 to 7 minutes. If the juices don’t evaporate and the mussels are fully opened and cooked, remove the mussels and keep them warm, and continue reducing the juices until there is about one tablespoon left in the pan.
4. Add the hazelnuts to the pan. If necessary, return the mussels to the pan at this point and continue stirring and sautéing until all of the ingredients are thoroughly mixed and hot through and the hazelnuts are beginning to smell toasty, 1 to 2 additional minutes.
5. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the minced rosemary, season with pepper, and serve immediately.
4 first-course servings