flexing my mussels

Around this time every summer my children spend a week with my parents in Connecticut, and while I miss them (stop snickering I do miss them) I also enjoy having a week free to do, see and cook all the things I don’t ordinarily get to. You would expect the overwhelming quiet, greatly reduced laundry and lack of sibling bickering to be what makes they’re absence feel so profound, but in fact it’s the little things. The way I can walk from the front door to the kitchen without stepping on or tripping over anyone’s shoes, the way a gallon of milk can actually last for more than two days and the way I can go a week without uttering any of the following phrases: “stop yelling” “would you like me to treat you like that” “leave the dog alone” “turn down the tv” “no you can’t play video games” and last but not least “go to bed…go to bed…go to bed…GO TO BED!…” Yeah, I miss them. Terribly.

I consider my kids to be fairly adventurous eaters (for an 8 and 4 yr old) and easy to please when it come to meals. Yes my daughter would eat pasta for every meal if she could and my son could live on turkey and cheese sandwiches; but they also happily eat things like sushi, smoked ribs, grilled asparagus, shrimp stir-fry, sautéed grouper and garlicky hummus without complaint. What they won’t eat is anything too spicy, which is of course exactly how I like things. So while they’re away enjoying New England I get the opportunity to throw caution to the wind and cook the spicy dishes that make me most happy.

Given the freedom to make whatever floats my boat is actually a bit more daunting than you would think. To quote the charming Miss Veruca Salt “I want the works, I want the whole works…” There are so many recipes I tuck into my “just for me” file that when the time comes to actually pull one out, its tough to narrow it down. I really want to try to replicate the spicy ceviche I had at dinner the other night, there’s a chicken vindaloo recipe that looks easy whose ingredients I happen to already have on hand and a spicy West African peanut soup that sounds incredibly good. But in the end the dish I ultimately decided to kick my week of freedom off with was a is a dish of spicy steamed mussels.

I have a weakness for mussels, they happen to be one of my all-time favorite foods. I eat them whenever the opportunity arrises and can’t eat them without thinking fondly of the night my husband and I spent in Honfleur, France so many years ago. We sat for hours at a little table alongside the Vieux Bassin in the center of town, sipping rosé and enjoying the sights, the sounds and a steaming pot of mussels in a curry cream sauce. It was sheer perfection. Honestly, if you know my husband or myself then you have no doubt heard our story of Honfleur. Perfection! However, as big as that build up was and as much as I love that classic French preparation of mussels, I love the combination of coconut, chilies and lemon grass even more. So the decision was made and Spicy Coconut Mussels with Lemon Grass was the winner.

It was delicious and something the kids totally wouldn’t have appreciated, which made it all the tastier. They’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll have to start cooking to please their palates again, but I’ll always have the memories of these spicy mussels…

Spicy Coconut & Lemon Grass Mussels
These are perfect as an appetizer or as a main dish along with a tossed salad.

mussels2

4 tbsp. coconut oil
1 medium onion, halved and sliced thin
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
2 stalks fresh lemon grass, outer layers removed, cut into 3 pieces and smashed with the side of a knife
1 tsp. garam masala
2-3 small hot chiles (I used a fresh cayenne), finely chopped
3 cups unsweetened light coconut milk
4 lbs. fresh PEI mussels*, scrubbed
zest of a lemon
juice of a lemon
2 tsp. Asian fish sauce
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
sliced and toasted crusty bread

  1. Heat the coconut oil in the bottom of a large pot. Add the onion, garlic, lemon grass, garam masala and chiles and cook over medium heat until soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and mussels. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook until the mussels have opened, 5 to 7 minutes (discard any mussels that remain closed).
  2. Remove from heat and using a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to a large bowl, leaving the liquid in the pot. Fish out the lemon grass and stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, fish sauce and cilantro. Taste the broth and add more fish sauce and/or lemon juice if desired.
  3. Slice and toast several pieces of crusty bread. Place the mussels in four wide bowls, ladle the broth over them and serve with the sliced bread.

*adapted from NY Times

*You should always try to use any fresh shellfish the same day you buy it. However if you have to keep it for a day or two before cooking here’s what to do to keep it fresh: “Remove the mussels from the mesh bag and put them in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel to keep them moist. (Never store them in an airtight container, they’re still alive and will suffocate.) To check for freshness, tap a slightly opened mussel on the counter. If it doesn’t close shut, toss it. Store them in the coldest part of your refrigerator. The mussels will release a small amount of liquid every day, make sure to drain this often.” —@NoshOnIt
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not mom’s chocolate pudding

Tomorrow is my 20th college reunion. Twenty years, that’s crazy. It feels more like eight, maybe ten, but no way twenty years! When I think back to meals in college a few in particular stand out; chicken ‘n cheese from Paulie’s, pizza from G & G’s, beers on North Ave. (yes once upon a time that could have constituted a meal) and of course fries and gravy at the Thru-Way Diner. Oh yeah, those were our “glory days” of unhealthy, unbridled and unapologetic pleasures.

Flash forward twenty years and I couldn’t, wouldn’t even imagine subsisting on such a diet. The very thought of it gives me heartburn! But I suppose there’s a time and a place for everything. Now I’m more about trying to eat and feed my family as much healthy and unprocessed food as possible, which leads me to this weeks post… I recently started testing some recipes for Clean Eating Magazine and I currently happen to have some ingredients in my kitchen that I wouldn’t ordinarily have. Two of which are arrowroot powder and a carton of unsweetened coconut milk. Not wanting perfectly fine ingredients to go to waste I did a bit of research and decided to try making dairy-free, gluten-free (and if I’m correct, Paleo) chocolate pudding. Arrowroot powder is a naturally gluten-free thickener (similar to cornstarch) and coconut milk can stand in for dairy in many recipes. I figured it was worth a shot, any dessert with honey and dark cocoa powder in the ingredient list couldn’t possibly taste all that terrible. Right?!? As it would turn out, at the same time I was contemplating making this out of the ordinary creation both of my children came down with strep throat. In my mind sick kids always need something chocolatey to make them feel better, so off I went to make a batch of “chocolate pudding”.

So how’d it come out… The kids liked it and I ate two bowls myself, but it wasn’t the rich and indulgent dessert you equate with homemade chocolate pudding. It was creamy and it was chocolatey, but it wasn’t soul-satisfying. If you’re not eating gluten-free, dairy-free or a Paleo diet, then feel free to skip this recipe and go make yourself (and your kids) some good ‘ol fashioned chocolate pudding. However if your diet is more limited (or cleaner) than ours, then by all means give this one a try. This pudding won’t be like Mom’s, but it won’t be all that terrible either.

Dairy-free Gluten-free Dark Chocolate Pudding
Adding whipped cream (dairy-free or regular) is entirely optional, but I thought it helped make the dessert seem a bit more traditional and decadent.

arrowroot choc pudding

1/2 cup arrowroot powder
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
4 cups unsweetened coconut milk (or almond milk)
2/3 cup honey (raw if possible)
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
whipped cream (non-dairy or regular), optional

  1. In a medium saucepan whisk together the arrowroot powder and cocoa powder. Add the coconut milk and stir until all the lumps are gone.
  2. Place the pan over medium heat, add the honey and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until thickened. (The pudding will stay pretty liquid for the first 9 minutes then suddenly it will thicken up.)
  3. Once thickened, remove from heat and add the vanilla. Stir to incorporate and pour into individual serving dishes.
  4. Allow to cool on the counter for 20 minutes before placing in the refrigerator to set and cool the remainder of the way. Serve with a little whipped cream and enjoy!

*adapted from food renegade