I hope it’s not too strange or morbid that I am writing this to you, but the truth is I’m not done talking to you. And I’m definitely not done writing for you. So this year for your birthday, I’ve decided to revive this here little blog. Because I know it made you proud. And because I can’t think of anything better to keep your memory alive and kicking than to keep on cooking.
When I spoke at your funeral last week I said that I would try to honour your memory by finding joy in cooking, even on the busiest of weeknight evenings. I think that this blog is a good way to hold me accountable to that. So, going forward, I hope that at least once a week I can cook with intention. To give myself the opportunity to sit down and really enjoy the fruits of my labour. To pick out ingredients, assemble them, and consume them in a way that makes cooking a choice, and not just a necessity. Because so often it becomes a chore, doesn’t it? It’s too easy to think in terms of protein + veg = dinner. Or to resent any dish or recipe that has me chopping for too long, whisking too much, or dirtying too many dishes. I hope that at least once a week I can throw a record on the turntable, light the flame on my stove and get cracking in a way that makes me feel fuller, less stressed and guilt free.
Which is exactly what I did earlier this week. On Wednesdays I often work from home. I usually don’t change out of my sweatpants and baggy T-shirt. I log-in in the mornings, and when I close my laptop 8 hours later, especially on spring days like these ones, the day still seems to be in its prime. I can throw on some real clothes, throw my hair into a topknot, grab a shopping bag and hit Roncesvalles, still bustling beneath my apartment. This week, I hit up a relatively new shop called Alimentari. A kind of upscale Italian grocery that is less than a 5 minute walk from my apartment. On this particular day, I went straight to the counter and ordered a nice generous slab of their house-made Focaccia. Dad, I gotta tell you. This might be the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. It’s soft and pillowy, with a nice chewy crust. Every bite is rosemary infused, and salted to just the right amount. Despite temptation however, we cannot (or maybe should not) just eat bread for dinner. So onwards I went.
My next stop was our local green grocer. Green grocers might be one of my favourite things about Toronto. You can find them on almost any block in Toronto, and they often also carry fresh flowers. Produce is fresher, better and more local than grocery stores, but cheaper and more generous than you often find at your local farmer’s market. Ours is called Master supermarket. Again, about a five minute walk from our apartment. I picked up a bit of produce for later in the week (hellooo rhubarb cordial), and a bag of arugula, perfectly portioned for a salad for two.
At this point, all I had left to pick up was the real star of the show that night: a fresh bag of mussels. De La Mer, our local fishmonger, always has bags of fresh mussels, by the pound, for usually no more than $8 a pop. Mussels for dinner is a fantastic way to feel very chic and classy and maybe a little French, with minimum time, effort and money.
First you dump your mussels into a clean sink, or a large bowl filled with water. Give them a vigorous rinse and a scrub. We don’t want them to be gritty. Now, one by one, we need to de-beard them. Grab a dishcloth or a paper towel, and yank any little hairy bits coming out of the shell. If you come across any open mussels, give them a tap with another mussel and set it down while you continue with the rest. Usually these mussels will close on their own. You then know that they are alive and still good to eat. If they don’t eventually close, chuck ‘em out. Also chuck out any whose shell is broken or cracked. Once all of your mussels are cleaned and de-bearded, give them another rinse.
That’s the hardest part. From here on out, it’s smooth sailing! Chop up one shallot, and two large cloves of garlic. Heat a generous pat of butter in a deep pot that will fit all of your mussels. Once it’s sizzling, dump in the shallots and garlic, and sweat them until they are nice and soft. Then take some white wine, just enough so that your mussels can steam in the liquid, maybe a cup? And pour it over the garlic and shallots. Scrape the pan to deglaze any browned bits, and then throw in all the mussels. Cover the pot.
While the mussels are steaming, throw your arugula into a salad bowl. Salt and pepper. Grate some parmesan cheese over the salad. Drizzle with olive oil and your choice of either lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (I went with balsamic). Now you have a nice zippy salad.
Mussels only need to steam for about 5 minutes or so. Lift the lid. If the mussels are all open, they’re done! Bring the pot of mussels directly to the table, serve yourself a little green salad, rip off a piece of that divine focaccia, and dig in. If any mussels haven’t opened, it’s your call. Some say they’re safe to eat, other says they’re no good. I usually play it safe.
Now, I love mussels, I really do. But it would not be inaccurate to say that a nice pot of mussels is, to some extent, just an excuse to dip fresh bread into the buttery, garlicy, white wine broth at the bottom of the pot. This alone is worth living life for.
So, I hope you’d be proud Dad! Its meals like these, where I’ve taken a nice sunny walk to fetch all the ingredients on the lively little street where I live, that remind me to truly appreciate my urban lifestyle. Toronto may be expensive, but there’s not much that makes me happier than a nice walk resulting in a supper of fresh mussels, bread and salad.