Mussels with Pesto

September 23, 2009

Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence.
~Carolus Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica (1751)

To make a long story absurdly too short, Carolus Linnaeus has often been deemed the father of taxonomy. He laid the foundations for the binomial or binary nomenclature system of naming and classifying organisms which, with modifications, is still in broad use today.

For those of you who have diligently plucked the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) from your summer gardens and bottled fresh pesto for the winter months—or who have friends who do the same and so generously share.

MUSSELS WITH PESTO

1 C pesto (see Pasta with Pesto, 08.18.09 post)

2 1/2 lbs fresh mussels

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled, and sliced
1/2 t sea salt
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 C dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Spread pesto out in a large shallow bowl.

Scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If necessary, debeard them and discard any opened mussels which fail to close when pressed together.

Sweat the olive oil, shallots, garlic and salt in a large, heavy saucepan over medium low heat until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. The shallots should be translucent. Add the wine and bring to a constant, but not raging, boil, for about 5-6 minutes. Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook the mussels until they open, about 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Drain the mussels through a sieve, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Then transfer this strained liquid to the bowl with the pesto and stir them together. Remove the mussels from the shells and place them in the bowl with the pesto and reserved cooking liquid. Stir gently to coat and season liberally with pepper. Serve promptly with toasted or grilled bread.

…the taste of chocolate is a sensual pleasure in itself, existing in the same world as sex….For myself, I can enjoy the wicked pleasure of chocolate…entirely by myself. Furtiveness makes it better.
~Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Some misled foodies have asserted that mouse au chocolat has become hackneyed, banal, and instead opt for the more eccentric desserts on a menu. Check error on their box scores. This lustrous, chocolate-intense dessert has never become trite to me. No way, no how. We are talking chocolate.

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, named by the famed 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. Translated from the Greek theobroma, “food of the gods,” they are small, understory trees that demand rich, adequately drained soil and bear small white beans. These environmentally particular trees only grow within about 15 degrees of either side of the equator.

Most things sensual reside in the recesses of our gray matter. Because of chocolate’s reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac, the renowned Italian libertine, Giacomo Casanova, ate chocolate before bedding his many mistresses. Centuries later, a study of Harvard graduates showed that chocolate consumers lived longer than abstainers. Their longevity may be explained by the high polyphenol levels in chocolate which reduce the oxidation of low density lipoproteins and thus reduce the risk of heart disease and even cancer. So, the antioxidants produced by chocolate purportedly increase HDL (“good”) cholesteral levels, and release polyphenols which are a form of antioxidant. Chocolate is also rich in flavonoids, a compound shown to promote several beneficial effects in the cardiovascular system, including decreasing oxidation of LDL cholesterol (a harmful process that allows cholesterol to accumulate in blood vessels); inhibiting aggregation of blood platelets (which contributes to the risk of blood clots that produce stroke and heart attack); and decreasing the body’s inflammatory immune responses (which contribute to atherosclerosis).

Chocolate has also been described as a “psychoactive” food. It affects the brain by causing the release of particular neurotransmitters which are molecules that send signals between neurons.

Some trials have even suggested chocolate consumption may subtly enhance cognitive performance, increasing scores for verbal and visual memory. Eating chocolate also increases endorphin levels, lessening pain and decreasing stress. To go a step further, a chemical found in chocolate, trytophan, causes the release of serotonin which serves as an antidepressant. The ultimate comfort food?

Chocolate has a distinct tendency to absorb surrounding odors, so take care to store it well covered or sealed. Otherwise you will taste a mousse which is flavored with its disaffected food neighbors.

MOUSSE AU CHOCOLAT

8 oz high quality bittersweet chocolate (85% cocoa), coarsely chopped
1/4 C strong coffee

6 T unsalted butter, softened
4 large egg yolks

4 large egg whites
6 T confectioners’ sugar

2 C heavy cream, chilled
1 t vanilla extract

Melt chocolate and coffee in a double boiler over a pan of simmering water, stirring frequently. Beat the softened butter into the the melted chocolate, and then, one at a time, whisk in the egg yolks until thoroughly blended.

Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. While beating, stir in the sugar by tablespoonfuls. Beat them until shining and stiff peaks are formed. Fold the chocolate mixture and egg whites together.

Beat the cream and vanilla in a chilled bowl until stiff peaks form, and then gently fold into the chocolate, butter and egg mixture with a rubber spatula. Do not overmix, but make sure that the mixture is well blended and that white streaks have disappeared.

Spoon mousse into stemmed glasses, ramekins or a serving bowl and chill, covered, at least 8 hours. Serve atop crème anglaise or topped with freshly whipped cream.