Global warming is too serious for the world any longer to ignore its danger or split into opposing factions on it.
~Tony Blair

Another sad example of how humankind has altered the ocean environment — exhausting the limits of an ecosystem’s endurance. The iconic coastal California mussel may be the casualty this time.

A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that by mid-century, western coastal waters will become sufficiently acidic to hinder shell formation by mussels, oysters and corals. These waters are particularly fecund because winds that blow surface water out to sea allow water laden with nutrients to swell near the shore. This upwelling renders those waters especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Increased acidity levels develop in the waters as they absorb carbon dioxide which accelerate as trends of anthropogenic greenhouse gases continue to soar. Ocean acidification has been dubbed the osteoporosis of the seas.

What does this have to do with our cherished shellfish? As carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water, saturation levels of the mineral calcium carbonate, a critical building block for shells and skeletons, decreases. Undersaturation can reach perilous levels depriving these sea creatures of the basic component needed to develop and maintain their shells. According to these researchers (who were using optimistic models), by 2050 west coast seawater will no longer have sufficient saturation states to maintain adequate calcium carbonate levels. This places mussel populations at serious risk. This is indeed a dire finding given that mussels provide habitat, refuge, and food for some 300 other species.

A correlative finding was reached in a later study conducted at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Researchers there noted that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that climate scientists attribute to human activity have resulted in increased ocean acidification. This team focused on mussel larvae, which swim in the open ocean before settling down on the shoreline and attaching to reefs as adults. As with many other marine creatures, mussel larvae are more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Larvae were grown in the lab at present acid levels, levels projected for the end of the century if carbon dioxide emissions continue, and at levels which might be reached if emissions are reduced. The shells were measurably thinner and the mussels’ bodies smaller at projected acid levels.

Other researchers have sung the same refrain: if human actions continue unabated, oceans will continue to absorb rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide which causes ocean acidification whose corrosive effect ultimately threatens to decimate certain shellfish species.

Do we welcome such a sea change?

As always, follow the cleaning and culling ritual. Thoroughly scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of cold water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards (the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell) cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance of the cooking process or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.


1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 lbs mussels, cleaned
1 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 t fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/2 C dry white wine
1/2 C fish stock or clam juice
2 T unsalted butter

1 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Roughly ground black pepper
Sea salt

In large, heavy Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium and add chorizo, garlic and shallots. Sauté until shallots soften and become transparent, about 4-5 minutes. Add mussels, thyme, oregano and tomatoes. Stir well.

Add wine and stock to pan. Cover, and cook over medium heat until the mussels open, about 6-8 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few minutes to reduce liquid by half. Add butter, and stir vigorously into the sauce.

Transfer mixture to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and pepper, and salt to taste. Serve with toasted or grilled slices of artisanal bread rubbed with fresh garlic cloves.

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.


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.

Moules Marinières

April 11, 2009

Mussels, a personal love, have been a food source for tens of thousands of years. They encapsulate the type of food that I adore: simple, savory, and without pretense.

In ancient Greece, electoral votes were cast by scratching the names of candidates inside mussel shells.

Centuries later, in one of the earliest (14th century) French cookbook transcripts, Le Viander de Taillevent, a mussel recipe appears—with mint of all things. The reknowned Taillevent rose from meager beginnings as a young kitchen hand by the common name of Guillaume Tirel to become the heralded master chef for the king of France, Charles V (“the Wise”). More than a quincentennial later, Taillevent’s name graced a famous Parisian restaurant which opened shortly after the close of World War II.

Mussels are bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live on exposed shores in intertidal zones. The external shell is composed of two hinged halves (valves) joined together by a ligament, and closed by robust internal muscles. They have tough, elastic byssal threads—their notorius “beards.”

On storage: do not bring home mussels in a closed plastic bag and directly store them in the refrigerator. In that sealed bag, they will suffocate and die. So, either put them on the refrigerator shelf with the bag open or transfer them to a large glass bowl and cover them with a damp cotton cloth.


2 lbs fresh mussels

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 t sea salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3 shallots, peeled and finely minced
2 t dried thyme
2 C white wine (slightly sweet or a touch fruity)

1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C fresh tarragon, chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

Start with butter then combine salt, garlic, shallots, thyme, and wine in large deep heavy skillet. Sweat over low heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and mussels with a generous sprinkling of pepper, then cover. Cook just until shells open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and sprinkle with tarragon and more pepper.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette slices and a chilled white or rosé.

…shellfish are the prime cause of the decline of morals and the adaptation of an extravagant lifestyle.
~Pliny the Elder

Apparently, the tapas topic has proven as addictive as the food (and wine) itself. So, bear with my obsession for one more recipe in this recent spate. No doubt more tapas recipes will appear, but a little later down the line.

These delicate shell beasts that have traditionally graced plates in tapas bars everywhere are as simple to prepare as they are pleasing to the eye and palate…and I love the crunch of those tails.


1 lb large shrimp, peeled with tails left intact (16-20 count)
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 t Spanish paprika (pimentón)
1 T dried chili pepper
2 T cognac or brandy
Sea salt

Chopped fresh parsley

In a heavy sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and sauté another 1 to 2 minutes. Do not burn.

Add the shrimp, red pepper and paprika. Stir well, then sauté, stirring briskly until the shrimp turn pink and curl – about 3 to 4 minutes total, turning once. Pour in the brandy and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add a pinch or two of salt and sprinkle lightly with parsley.

Serve with sliced toasted or grilled bread.

Ceviche: Debated Ancestry

March 27, 2009

Ceviche, seviche or cebiche is a technique of marinating raw seafood in citrus, traditionally fresh lime juice. As with all great food…exalted simplicity. The fish is slightly “cooked” by the citric acid, which does not involve heat, but does impart subtle flavor. The citric acid denatures the proteins in the fish, unraveling the molecules and altering their chemical and physical properties. Bathing the fish in citrus juices turns the flesh firm and opaque.

As with sashimi, ceviche should be reserved for the absolutely freshest your fishmonger has to offer…and sustainable, less toxin-risky species should always be the goal (see Sustainable Seafood).

While many espouse that ceviche originated in Peru, there seem to be so many varied claims and theories on which country or historical era gave birth to this dish that landing on a solid postulate seems nearly impossible. Suffice it to say, ceviche appears to be native to Central and South America (but, stories persist about ceviche being the fancied, imported stepchild of Moorish women who immigrated to the Viceroyalty of Peru beginning in the 16th century). Such are the culinary conundrums created when civilizations merge, expand, disperse and vanish over time.


1/2 lb fresh white fish, such as red snapper, sea bass, sole, flounder, grouper
1/2 lb scallops
Sea salt
3/4 C fresh lime juice
2 T fresh grapefruit juice
1-2 jalapeno chilies, seeded and finely diced
2 T fresh ginger, grated
Fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

Chill several small serving plates in the freezer.

Carefully cut the fish horizontally into 1/8″ thick slices with a well sharpened and newly honed knife. Salt fish on both sides and place in a large flat bowl. Spoon the lime and grapefruit juice over the fish and toss with the chili, ginger and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably more. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to the chilled plates and serve.

What garlic is to food, insanity is to art
~Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Aïoli, that luscious garlic mayonnaise, is a Provençal staple which enjoys almost boundless applications…gracing soups, adorning shellfish, awakening vegetables, accompanying grilled meats and spread on sandwiches. Here are three variations on a theme listed in no order of preference.

For optimal results, have all ingredients at room temperature for each recipe.

Aïoli I

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 C extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt

Mash the garlic and salt together with a pestle in a warm mortar, forming a smooth paste.

Add the egg yolks and stir to thoroughly blend the garlic and yolks. Continue stirring and gradually add a few drops of the oil. Whisk until the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. As soon as the mixture begins to thicken, while whisking vigorously, add the remaining oil in a slow, steady, thin stream.

Taste for seasoning, transfer to bowl and refrigerate.

Aïoli II

2 large egg yolks, room temperature
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, minced then smashed to a paste with a pinch of sea salt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 T Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 C canola oil
½ C extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons heavy cream (or to desired consistency)
Sea salt to taste

A silkier version. Drop the egg yolks in a mixing bowl, then whisk in the garlic, lemon juice, mustard and cayenne. Slowly, gradually whisk in the combined canola and olive oils, first drop by drop and then in a slow, steady, thin stream. When the oils are incorporated, whisk in the cream.

Season with salt, cover and refrigerate.

Aïoli III

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T fresh lemon juice
3 T Dijon mustard
2 large eggs, room temperature

2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the garlic, lemon juice, mustard and egg in a blender and blend until smooth, between 1 to 2 minutes. With the blender still running, slowly pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady thin stream until the sauce begins to thicken. Take care not to add too much oil in the beginning as the aïoli will not emulsify. The aïoli should be the consistency of a smooth, creamy mayonnaise.

Season with salt and pepper, cover and refrigerate.


For a spicy variation on each of the recipes above, just before you slowly pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady, thin stream, add:

1/2 t saffron threads
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1 t tomato paste

Then complete the remainder of the recipe.

Categories’ Translations

January 22, 2009

Admittedly, a paranoia induced entry. In a late night, overwrought effort to be cute, some of my Categories titles may be rightly dubbed obscure. So, to assure the utter transparency that is ever much in the political vogue these days (a more accurate word might be “translucence”), the literal interpretations follow:

Ab Ovo — Eggs

Asides — Vegetables, Side Dishes

Between the Sheets — Sandwich fare

Dough & Yeast — Pasta, Pizza, Calzone

Fine Fowl — Poultry

Fish Out of Water — Fish, Shellfish

Gadgets & Toys — Cutlery, Cookware, Tools, Utensils

Going Green — Salads

Soupçon — Soups

Mulling over Mammals — Meats

Ruminations — Random Thoughts, Ideas

Silk Pantries — Pantry, Cupboard items

Small Pleasures — Appetizers, Hors d’oeuvres, Amuses gueles/bouches, Tapas

Sweet Teeth — Desserts

The Holy Grill — Grilling, Barbeque