Saturday, July 26, 2008

Spicy Thai Steamed Mussels (Page 333)


  • Date: Monday, July 14, 2008 -- 7pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companions: Matty and Matt
  • Recipe Rating: B

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in culinary school was on the second week of class with a man named Chef Stephan. Chef Stephan was very serious, and a little scary. He would often yell at me from across the kitchen, and as I soon as I heard, "Teena..." I would brace myself. But he was an amazing chef and an excellent teacher -- there is no one who has taught me more about cooking than Chef Stephan. So it was week two of culinary school and I was a little nervous. I was making a pureed vegetable soup (easy enough!) which involved only a few new techniques (using a food mill and tamis was new to me at the time). So I diligently made my soup, then some cute garnishes out of green beans, and I was done! With an hour left in the kitchen, then only thing I had left to do was season. The idea of seasoning was pretty new to me. Sure, I understood that one usually adds salt to food. But I had never really thought too carefully about it. So I walked over to Stephan and quietly asked, "Will you help me season?" He followed me back to my station, bringing with him 10 small glass prep bowls, and lined them up in front of my pot. He filled the first little bowl with some of the unseasoned soup. He handed me a box of kosher salt and instructed me to add some to the pot. I did. We tasted it. We put some of the slightly seasoned soup in the next little bowl. "More salt?" He asked. I nodded. We went on like this for 5 or 6 more bowls, until I wasn't sure any more. He helped me decide when to stop adding salt to the pot, and then filled the remaining little bowls with soup and carefully added increasingly more salt to them. We had a spectrum of 10 bowls, from over-seasoned to under-seasoned, and all he told me was to keep tasting until I understood how to season.

I was late leaving class that day. I tasted and tasted. And it was amazing to see how more salt brought out the wonderful layers of flavor up until a crucial point after which the soup tasted salty. I have thought often about that lesson, and I have even repeated it myself with friends who wanted to learn to season. It is a truly wonderful exercise.

Why do I mention this? Because this recipe called for NO SALT. There was no salt listed, there was no instruction to season (you could argue that there is always an implicit instruction to season, but The Book is actually very explicit about these things). So, like a diligent little recipe-tester, I didn't add salt. I said nothing to either Matty or Matt, but after one bite Matty turned to me and said, "Did you forget to add the salt?" I was so proud! It was a lovely observation. The dish desperately, DESPERATELY needed salt. Despite the wonderful ingredients (coconut milk, red curry paste, white wine, lime juice, etc...) the curry sauce was bland. Matty wandered off to the kitchen and returned with a big box of kosher salt. He seasoned the dish (something he has become quite good at in the last year), and it was hugely improved. I find it impossible to believe that salt was an intentional omission from this recipe, so let's just call it a typo and leave it at that. Maybe, maybe the salt in the dish was supposed to come from the fish sauce, which is indeed salty, but it wasn't enough! Other than the salt issue, this dish was fine. Mussels were steamed in a simple curry sauce that wasn't amazing but tasted pretty good (after salt was added -- sorry I just can't let it go). So as not to waste the tasty sauce, I served this with rice that the sauce could be poured over. It was a little thin for that purpose though. Certainly having a thin base is good for steaming the mussels, but perhaps after the mussels were cooked the liquid could be reduced to give a more substantial sauce. As it was, the dish was fine.

Here is the recipe.

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