For this post, here are a few things you ought to know about me:
- Outside of writing, I don’t have an ounce of artistic inclination.
- I’m not a cook. I mean, yes, I sometimes rearrange, mix, and heat food, but I don’t have any clue beyond the basic of basic skills.
- I could sustain myself easily on the same three or four go-to meals for my entire life. See points one and two, but basically, I’ve learned to enjoy eating the same thing over and over again as long as it gives me the protein, vegetables, and carbs I need.
- I live in Colorado. That’s a land locked state – a desert, at that! Seafood is not exactly in style around here.
Crystal challenged us to prepare a recipe from her Feast of Sorrow accompanying cookbook, and I decided to dive into the deep end. Why not take the opportunity and try to cook something I’d never otherwise? I chose the umbrian lentils with steamed mussels because it would combine a familiar ingredient – lentils – with a foreign – mussels.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Feast of Sorrow for me were the details of how Apicius acquired the ingredients for his recipes. Sometimes he traveled; sometimes ingredients were imported. Some foods were grown; some foods they fished out of the ocean. When I started my hunt for the ingredients in the Lentil & Mussel dish, I felt a little like Apicius might have. I mean, if Apicius had had access to the internet and telephones to call local grocery stores. Okay, okay, so maybe my adventure wasn’t nearly as daring as Apicius, but I was breaking out of my comfort zone for sure.
Example: Did you know that fennel can be purchased as a fresh vegetable? I found it at my local Safeway labeled anise. I turned around to a Safeway produce guy who happened to be behind me, and asked if it was fennel. “Sure is,” he said and I was so proud of myself! Silly, I know, but I was, I really was proud.
The most unusual ingredient for me though was obviously the mussels. I even wondered if I could buy them here in dusty Colorado, or if I’d need to order them online. But sure enough, they were here, in my grocery’s fish department. The recipe called for four pounds, and I had to go to three stores to get that much!! Each time they bagged the mussels for me, they put a hole in it to “let them breathe.”
That’s when, dear reader, I had a bit of a panic. “Let them breathe?!” Oh, yeah – I remembered, belatedly – mussels have to be cooked alive! Silly land-locked me, I had completely forgotten this little fun fact. Later, as I washed them in my sink, I handled them tentatively, as if one of them had teeth and would open up their little shells to bite my murderous hands. My partner was rolling his eyes at me by this point. “Think of them as plants,” he chided.
The first half of the recipe was the easy half, or at least the more familiar half. I was to cut up vegetables like carrots, celery, onion, and the fennel, caramelize them, and then add lentils to simmer. Easy!
I ground pepper, cumin, and coriander (fun!) and then started on the next aspect of the meal: the mussels. First I sauteed shallots and added in fresh spices like mint and bay leaves. (Another fun fact: Bay leaves are also called laurel leaves! Those wreaths they used to wear? Those are bay leaves!)
So far, all was going well. But then I was to add the mussels into the pot. Eeks! I don’t know why I’m squimish about these things but I’m sure being exposed so rarely to seafood has something to do with it. I was remiss in that I didn’t get a picture after I added the mussels. But I did it, I assure you. I cooked mussels for the very first time. I Googled “cooking mussels” of course to be sure I was doing it right, and that I wasn’t going to poison any of us with rotten meat.
Only a few minutes later, I had the finished product. I mixed the lentils with a honey/sweet apple vinegar which I thought was strange at first, but ended up being delicious. Then I placed the mussels on top of each bowl. Voila! (Oops sorry, that’s French.)
Oh, and I ate the mussels too! After I stopped being weirded out by them, they were quite tasty. My partner assured me it was quality protein, too.
Thank you, Crystal, for giving me the opportunity to break out of my comfort zone! This was really fun, and it was cool to reflect back on what I learned about ancient Roman cooking as I read Feast of Sorrow.