Cooking Ever Since

Ostensibly this blog started out  as a place to share recipes and a love for food. Clearly, it's transformed into a forum for me to share too many details about my life and then stick a recipe at the end. This post will be a combination of both, with, I hope, an emphasis on the food side.

I don’t remember much about my mother’s cooking when I was young, but I grew up on the coast of Maine and lobster figured prominently. The two of us lived alone on Two Lights Road, home of the Hopper lighthouses and a restaurant called The Lobster Shack.

In the early 1970’s the lobster dinner at the Shack was a whopping $5.99, so we would normally drive to Old Orchard Beach for the iconic basket filled with lobster, cole slaw and fries, available on the boardwalk for a more reasonable $3.99. When we went to the beach, we’d pack a picnic, which would include either my (still) favorite, Italian Sandwiches, the kind only found in the greater Portland area, or baked bean sandwiches, which, inexplicably, I think I ate without complaint.

The only home-cooked memory I can dredge up from those early years is haddock stuffed with … something, and a pan fried chicken dinner I “made” my mother burn once when I was late coming home from Janey Mahoney's house.

The first time I remember cooking was when I was in 6th grade and my mother was dying of colon cancer (for those of you who know my current, healthy, alive mother, I'm writing about my adoptive one). We had moved south of Buffalo to be closer to relatives (i.e. the people I would live with when she died), and because of the effects of the cancer, she was usually too tired to rustle up dinner. I have one very specific memory of making myself lamb chops, but usually I’d bake a Swanson’s TV dinner. The one with the fried chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and the apple “pie” for dessert. Or was it called, “cobbler.” Anyway, after a solid six months of what I used to think was a treat, I beat the trend and called it quits for TV dinners.

When my mother died I moved in with my Aunt Marge and Uncle Bill. Men had too much power in those days, and Uncle Bill and my cousin Bob were clearly in charge of the dinner selection. Here's the list of what they would eat: steak; lasagna; spaghetti; pork chops; steak; lasagna; spaghetti; pork chops; and something called “turkey roll.” Let’s see, am I missing something? I don’t think so. There was no chicken and no fish. No lamb either. For special occasions we’d have roast beef. And there was definitely a pot roast or two. We’d have salad with every meal (and if you didn’t want a salad, you were required to eat a raw vegetable as a pre-dinner treat. Celery for Bob; half a green pepper for me. I ate salad as well but wanted to be just like my new sibling). We also had frozen vegetables in individual Pyrex bowls, defrosted in the microwave and topped with a melted slice of Velveeta. My Aunt Marge was a great cook and all of these things were delicious, but I arrived ready to shake things up by the sheer fact of wanting a larger variety of food to eat. I was skinny in those days. I mean really skinny. And I would eat a TON. At one point my new family had me checked for tape-worm. But it was just a super fast metabolism – a metabolism that ran away and joined the circus never to be seen again the second I hit 25.5 years old on the dot. I miss it and hope it's doing well.

So, one day I suggested to Aunt Marge that maybe she could make two dinners some nights – one for the two of us, and one for Bob and Uncle Bill. For some reason she agreed. I threw myself into helping with the new recipes. She had a slender hardcover encyclopedia-like series of Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, and I went searching. Since chicken had been scarce, we started there first – dishes with exotic sounding names like Chinese Walnut Chicken and Chicken Cacciatore came to 1977 Western New York.

I quickly latched on to Chinese food. The only take-out in the two towns I'd lived in was pizza. Soon I was inviting my friend Beth over to make Chinese “banquets” – which consisted of making egg rolls from scratch, which I found pretty impressive.

In any case, I’ve been cooking ever since. This is one of the things I made w my friend Liz last weekend. And, I’m not going to lie, impressive once again.

Mussels Stuffed with Mortadella (really, has anything ever sounded so yummy??)
Adapted from A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield

For the stuffed mussels

10 oz pork or veal shoulder, cut into 1" pieces
One 5-oz chunk mortadella, cut into 1" pieces
1/2 c fine bread crumbs
1 1/2 t Maldon or another flaky sea salt
About 3 dozen large PEI mussels, cleaned and prepped (see below)

For the sauce

Three 28 oz cans peeled whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained, trimmed, and squished with your hands
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil, plus a few glugs for finishing
7 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 c dry white wine, such as Sauvingnon Blanc
1 or 2 Dutch or other spicy long red chili, thinly sliced (including seeds)
Maldon or another flaky sea salt
A small handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

Special equipment: meat grinder or a meat grinder attachment for your food processor. (I finally invested in the latter. It was about $35 and totally worth it.)

Make the stuffing: Put the pork or veal, mortadella, bread crumbs, and salt into a medium bowl and mix together thoroughly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the freezer for about an hour.

Using a meat grinder, grind the meat through a large die into a bowl. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and put into the freezer again for about 30 minutes. Grind the mixture again through the small die.

Stuff the mussels: For each mussel, grab a generous tablespoon of the ground meat mixture, depending on the size of the mussels, and add it to one of the shell halves. Gently squeeze the shell until it's almost shut, then push any filling that oozes out back into the ground meat mixture. As you fill the mussels, place them in a big bowl. Set the bowl of stuffed mussels aside while you start the sauce. (April says that you can leave them overnight, but if you know me, that option was out of the question. Clearly it would lead to certain death).

Make the sauce: Reserve 3 cups of the squished tomatoes, and puree the rest in a food processor. Pour the oil into an 8 - 9 quart Dutch oven or other pot large enough to hold the mussels in no more than two layers and turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until it turns a deep golden-brown color and smells nutty and sweet, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, then add the squished tomatoes, tomato puree, chili, the reserved mussel liquor, 1 c water and 1 teaspoon salt. Let the liquid come to a simmer and tweak the heat to maintain a gentle simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cook the mussels: Gently (so the stuffing doesn't fall out) add the mussels to the pot in one or two tightly packed layers. Give them a gentle press down with your hands or a spoon. Cover the pot, tweaking the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 25 minutes, then uncover the pot and give it a light shake. Spoon some of the liquid over the top of the mussels and replace the lid. Cook for 15 minutes more, shaking occasionally, turn off the heat, and let the mussels sit, lid still on, for 5 - 10 minutes. Remove a mussel and open it. You should be able to easily pluck out the mussel meat and filling in one piece. Taste the sauce and add a little salt, if you'd like. Gently stir in the basil and a generous drizzle of olive oil. YUM!!

How to clean and prep the mussels: If any of the mussels are open, shut them. If they won't shut, throw them away. Scrub the mussels under running water with a rough sponge or brush to remove any sand and grit, and pull off any beards.

Prep the mussels over a large tray or baking sheet that will catch the mussel liquor but won't restrict your movements. Steady a mussel on its edge so that the flatter edge faces up. With the other hand, starting at the midpoint of the flatter edge, carefully force a small sharp knife into the space between the shell halves and use a light sawing motion to cut all the way around the shell's round tip. Twist your knife firmly but gently (be careful not to break the shell) to jimmy open the mussel. Use your fingers to pull the shell open as much as you can without separating the shell halves. Some of the mussel meat should be clinging to each side of the open shell. Remove any beard you see inside. Repeat this process with the remaining mussels. Strain any mussel liquor through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and set it aside. (Oops, I think we forgot that last straining part, but we lived.)


manriggs said...

Now I understand it ALL! Thank you!

toni said...

i am sort of a finicky eater, and think of fish as the devil, but i always love to read about your life, janetta. this was really interesting, and something that made me happy, sad, happy. also, i am always just enamored with your love of cooking. i don't possess it, but you make me wish i did. xo

Janetta Stringfellow said...

Thank you, Toni. You may not like to cook, but I know at least you like to eat braised food! More of that to come next week as I am currently a shut-in braising in the snow. Seriously, you are one of my fave writers, so I always feel like I've done something right when you comment on my blog.