You who know me know also that I do all the cooking in our household. That, in fact, I am even a tad nuts on the subject of not letting anyone else cook in my kitchen. This quirk led me to hardly notice that the Dear Husband’s main function around mealtime was to greatly admire and enjoy whatever was on his plate. And then, of course, doing the dishes after the eating was done.
But I did always have a slightly uneasy feeling that this was not a well-balanced state of affairs. After all, we’ve now been together as a couple for about a quarter of a century. That’s a lot of meals. I had a blast preparing them. But…but what would the Dear Husband do when I wasn’t around to prepare?
The answer over the last twenty-five years: Cheese and salsa sandwiches, with raw carrots on the side.
I did worry a little bit about his being apart from me and subsisting on his inevitable cheese and etc. So the other night when I hauled myself home from a day in town, and unpacked the groceries, to my delight, I found him watching intently.
“What are you cooking tonight?”
“Mussels. For some reason they were marked down. But I had a chat with the butcher, and we couldn’t figure out why—they’re all alive.”
“Do they have to be alive?”
“How can you tell?”
“If they shut up when you squeeze them. If they’re shut already (but if they don’t open when you cook them, those ones are dead, too). If they’re not cracked.”
“Okay. So what I want to know is: could they be cooked in one pot? Like if I went camping?”
I looked at him in astonishment. Was my Dear Husband actually asking me to teach him to cook mussels on a CAMPFIRE? Oh my. I breathed in and tried not to look as astonished as I felt. Or as proud. If this was what was happening, I felt my success as a wife was complete.
“Are you…are you asking me to teach you to cook things you could do while you’re camping?”
“Well. Yeah. I get kind of tired of cheese sandwiches.”
Oh. Oh. YES! (Silent high five between my spirit and myself.)
Hold back the enthusiasm, Tod. Go easy here. You don’t want to scare him.
“You know, I think that’s a great idea. If you were in a place where they had mussels on sale, they’re a great camp dinner choice. They’re easy, they’re inexpensive, they’re delicious, and you don’t even need a fork to eat them.”
“You use the shells. I’ll show you when we sit down with the finished product. But first…”
First. Here’s how to cook mussels in one pot, on the stove or…over a campfire.
Buy your mussels. About a pound is good for one hungry camper. Make sure the store has punched holes in the cellophane if the mussels are wrapped. You don’t want them smothering to death before it’s their time.
Now. Back at the campsite. If it’s easy, fill a bowl with some water and salt. Add the mussels to soak. You can use the bowl to eat them out of later. If it’s not easy, it’s not going to kill you this once to eat mussels that haven’t been rinsed off.
Chop some garlic, and some kind of onion (shallot, white, red, scallion), any kind you like. Add to the pot, in a puddle of some kind of fat (butter, oil, bacon fat, your choice). Cook on low heat until soft. If you have any spices with you that you like, you can add those now. Chile powder is a good camping spice. Smoked paprika. I like to add curry powder myself. Just a small shake is good. Or a sprinkling of thyme is nice.
If you don’t have any fat, no worries. Move on to the next instruction, and add all the above ingredients to the liquid. It will be marginally less toothsome, but this is camping, for God’s sake.
If you DO have fat, cook the above a bit more till slushy. Now add a quarter cup (I mean a quarter cup of whatever you’re drinking out of; no need to get pedantic here) of some kind of liquid. Beer. Wine. Tomato juice. Veggie broth. V-8. Clam juice. Whatever you have on hand. Cook for a moment more.
While that is happening, debeard your mussels. This is simple. Drain the mussels. Then just pull the beard off them and toss the cleaned mussels into the pot. If you can, turn the heat up a bit, but no worries if you’re only on one kind of heat.
Cover the pot. Shake it from time to time to help the shellfish cook evenly. If you have any parsley or cilantro on you, now is the time to chop.
Open the lid cautiously. Are the mussels all open? (If almost all are WIDE open, but one or two aren’t, discard the unopened ones without eating. But be careful—sometimes a mussel is more stubborn than its fellows, and those tend to be the most delicious of all.) IF they are, take the pot off the heat, scatter the parsley if you have it, pour them into your bowl, and have at it, preferably with a bit of bread or tortilla to mop up the juice.
If you don’t have bread or a tortilla, just lift the bowl and drink the juice down straight. After all, if you can’t behave like that when you’re camping, what’s the point of camping at all?
And—as I showed the Dear Husband at dinner that night—you can use the shells themselves as little tongs to pull the mussels out of their shells, conveying them mouthward.
Really. Mussels are ideal camping food. And I never would have known if he hadn’t thought of it. Which is why we’re a great team. Now I have to plot what to teach him next…scrambled eggs with smoked salmon is what I’m thinking, hhhhhmmmmm…