Thursday, 17 May 2012 | 20 comments

Onwards, upwards, & moules marinières

“Oh, this is worse than I thought,” Allen says. “You’re lucky. See these bare wires? A giant fireball could have come barreling out at you! If that had happened, it would have singed off all your hair. Or blinded you.” I examine the little greasy metal box Allen is showing me. The wires do look a bit dubious. “I’m going to have to come back tomorrow.” I’m glad Allen is here. He’s the oven repair man, and it’s his second time at the house. He and I are becoming close. He wants to go fishing down at the creek, he says, and he’s going to teach Ben how to hunt deer. “And make sure NOBODY turns on that oven.” Somehow, the fact that we narrowly escaped a lit-gas fireball incident is unsurprising to me. It might even be an apt metaphor for the past few weeks, a whirlwind of growings-up and new beginnings and startings-over. My little sister, so much more than a sister and best friend, graduated college, leaving me bursting with pride and also feeling a bit wrecked. A friend got her dream job and is off to Texas, far away. All of nature, cultivated and uncultivated, seems to be echoing the forward motion, transitioning into a new stage. The trees shook off pretty blossoms and replaced them with lush green. Peas are ready to set fruit. The ducklings are growing up far too fast—I swear, they shoot up at least an inch a day—, seedlings have no need of being sheltered inside anymore, and oh, our favorite tiny hen (or what we thought was a hen) crowed the other day. For me, a consummate worrier, there is no small amount of stress that accompanies these sorts of things, happy as they may be, and I am left smiling but a bit exhausted and hollow. Adding to the one-two emotional punch of joy and stress is all the cooking and food that accompanies these events; celebratory and beautiful but often very rich and less-than-simple to accomplish—-the red velvet cake Louise requested for her grad party; the types of food I feel obliged to cook for my 81-year-old grandfather who stayed with us during the days bookending her commencement, godblesshim, who is known to say things like, “I’m an American boy; I eat hog and taters!”; the leftovers from our housewarming, which included a gift of caviar pie (seriously) from our wonderful friends in West Virginia. An absurd avalanche of goodies. (All accomplished without that oven, I might add, which conveniently gave out minutes before said housewarming gathering began—allowing all our guests an evening conveniently free of fireballs but also of any substantive food.)Adding to the graduations and celebrations is our friend Ashley, fresh out of law school in DC and studying to take the bar in her home state of California. She called at the tail-end of this string of joyous madness to ask if she could come visit us before she left, and the answer was of course, but it was the day after several evenings of not getting home until 10 PM, I hadn’t been grocery shopping in two weeks, the house was in shambles, and oh, I was meeting up with this amazing woman that same afternoon and was more than a teensy bit intimidated because, you know, she just won a James Beard Award (I will leave it to Elissa to decide whether or not I actually kept my cool). I wanted to make something special for our budding lady-lawyer’s last memories on the East Coast, but goodness, I lacked the steam.“Why don’t we make those mussels?” Ben asked on the phone. And I breathed a sigh of relief, because what he meant by ‘those mussels’ are the classic, impressive-but-really-simple moules marinières, and they would be perfect. Ashley and I arrived from DC at the house at 7:15, I chopped an onion while she had a beer and visited the ducks (oh, I didn’t mention they still live in the bathtub?). Ben had a loaf of bread rising and while it baked, he called us out to look at the pea blossoms (“I think they’re underappreciated,” he said) and clipped lettuce for salad. A little butter. Generous splash of wine. Mussels. And then dinner. We sat down in the fading light on the porch, sopped the bowls clean, licked fingers, laughed a lot, and drank the rest of the wine. Things will keep moving, rush-rushing forward, beyond my silly, control-seeking grasp. But if this—I looked around the table—if this can stay constant, I can live with that.

Moules marinières

Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; put into more frequent rotation recently because of Amelia’s post

You will need

    2 pounds mussels
    1 yellow onion, minced
    3 tablespoons butter
    1 generous cup light white wine, preferably unoaked
    Several sprigs of thyme
    A few grinds of black pepper


    Rinse and scrub the mussels. In a deep sauté pan with a lid, melt the butter and briefly sauté the onion. Add the wine, thyme, and pepper and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes to allow the alcohol to cook off.

    Then, add the mussels to the boiling mixture and put on the lid of the pan. Continue to boil over high heat. At intervals, using your thumbs to hold down the lid of the sauté pan, shake the pan up and down, back and forth to distribute the wine mixture among the mussels.

    After about five minutes of cooking over high heat, the mussels should be steamed wide open. Remove from heat and allow the liquid to settle out any grit. Spoon the mussels into in low bowls, with a bit of the wine broth ladled into each bowl. Make sure to serve with crusty bread to soak up all the good stuff.

    Serves 2-3.

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§ 20 responses to Onwards, upwards, & moules marinières

  • D. Gillespie

    Beautifully written. You captured life’s frenzy so eloquently.

  • You are such a good story teller, weaving so much into your words: giving your readers something, but making them look for something else. {I love coming here.}

  • I swear, mussels are so perfect for moments like these, when the idea of cooking supper is almost too much to handle. Today on la Domestique I’ve cooked mussels in rosé wine for a change, and they certainly hit the spot.

  • Val

    I love that food is the centerpiece of all of these occasions, happy and sad. We eat to rejoice and we eat to take comfort but most importantly it brings people together. Gorgeous photos!

  • Eileen

    I love this quote: “Things will keep moving, rush-rushing forward, beyond my silly, control-seeking grasp.” Oh, I can relate to that. Your blog is like a deep breath. Thank you.

  • I too am a consummate worrier and relate to your words I am left smiling but a bit exhausted and hollow. But as I read this post I found myself thinking about how you boost those around you – you give of yourself and make their lives better.

    “Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Oh, that last photo. It looks so wonderful. Simple goodness.

  • Yay moules! I love how simple yet impressive they are. Now I just need to learn how to make authentic Parisian frites… :)

  • Beautifully, beautifully written. Yes, I often wish we could bottle those moments for later. Happy weekend to you. ~m

  • Sarah, I hope that you have time to catch your breath now and that the oven gets repaired soon!

    Your table looks precisely the way I hope mine will someday–expansive and welcoming and with a fresh loaf of bread waiting to be broken among friends. I think the moules would be a bit of a stretch here in the Midwest, but I would really like to dive into Mastering the Art of French Cooking sometime soon. (I didn’t even own it until recently.)

    P.S. The garden is happening! I spent this morning with the neighbours moving a mountain of soil into raised beds (unfortunately, the actual soil behind the building was not going to work for growing food), and I’ve sown some seeds. Short notice meant that I couldn’t start seedlings inside. Fingers crossed.

  • Celia

    How did he bake bread without an oven? This post’s mystery.

  • You have no idea how well I relate to this post, Sarah. Life has been rush-rushing for me in some very unexpected ways recently. Just when life seems settled, it also seems to bring changes, doesn’t it? I find that at least for every thing that’s lost, other things are gained, and that’s just how this journey goes. Usually, it works out– different, but good. In the meantime, we gotta celebrate the good things we’ve been blessed with, as you certainly did. Brava!

    As for the mussels, I’m allergic to shellfish so can only live vicariously, but oh… how vicarious this is! Beautiful photos, beautiful words, as always.

  • Lovely writing and a beautiful post. Always look forward to my visits here.

  • I’m sure you impressed Elissa, you’re lovely! And isn’t she lovely and approachable too? Great post.

  • Oh honey, you totally kept your cool. But it was really the bluegrass talk that broke the ice…..

  • bkrupal

    we need the bread recipe soon too!

  • I love mussels and how easy they are to make…always a great weeknight dinner! Beautiful pictures!

  • Mila Camelo

    In most marine mussels the shell is longer than it is wide, being wedge-shaped or asymmetrical. The external colour of the shell is often dark blue, blackish, or brown, while the interior is silvery and somewhat nacreous..^.;

    Our web-site

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