Food is one of my favorite ways to travel.
When the scent of cilantro wafts up from my cutting board as I stand in the kitchen chopping, I find myself once again walking the streets of Quito on my way to lunch in one of the many little restaurants that border the streets, where I know that no matter what I order, I will first be served a bowl of fresh ceviche topped with a little green mound of those flat, bright green leaves. Thinking back, I can practically taste the citrusy raw squid swimming among the pungent fragrance of the herb; it still tastes faintly of the sea.
When my mother fries plantains, the sweet aroma of ripe bananas simmering in oil brings me back to the little wooden stands where I would stop to have lunch along the side of the road in Ivory Coast, watching the women fry mountains of black plantains in enormous iron pots. I plop the deliciously sweet alloco in my mouth, letting the sugary softness of the banana melt on my tongue, and I can practically feel the plastic chair sticking to my back under the hot African sun. As I reach for another, I can hear the gleeful laughter of children playing soccer on the dirt street, shouting victoriously as they kick empty cans into imaginary goals.
And whenever I happen upon the intoxicating fragrance of mussels steamed in white wine broth, paired with the mouth-watering smell of crispy hot french fries, I am whisked back to a busy Parisian street and an even busier Parisian restaurant that serves the best Moules-Frites (mussels and french fries) I have ever eaten. ‘Chez Léon’ is actually technically a Belgian restaurant, but moules-frites is as traditional to the north of France as it is to the French-speaking part of Belgium.
And in my heart, regardless of origin, this dish will always embody hot summer nights in Paris.
So when Josh and I decided to watch the movie “Julie and Julia” and make a French night out of it, I jumped on the opportunity to make homemade moules-frites. He had never had mussels before and I couldn’t wait for him to discover the flavors...I wanted him to travel to Paris with me for the evening.
I decided to serve the fries with garlic aioli. I naively thought this would be easy to do. Boy was I wrong. It turns out aioli is an incredibly finicky thing. It took me two tries and a lot of wasted eggs before I even got close. But, in the end, it was worth it. The garlicky creaminess complemented the french fries perfectly and we have enough left over that I can now use it in other dishes. Ah, sweet decadence...
The mussels and french fries proved to be smooth sailing after the aioli adventure. I had decided to cook the mussels a little differently this time by adding fennel and a touch of my favorite French liqueur, Pernod. The anise flavored liqueur brought out the taste of the fennel just enough to give the broth the essence of something special without smothering the delicacy of the shellfish. The fries were golden crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and I found myself dipping them in the sauce again and again, trying to soak up as much as possible.
The evening turned out beautifully. We paired the meal with a Pinot Noir from Burgundy and, just like that, we were back in France sharing one of those languorous meals that lasts deep into the night.
I closed my eyes, breathed in the flavors, and felt the Parisian summer air all around me.
Moules Frites (Mussels and French Fries)
If you’re going to serve these with aioli, I would make the aioli first, as it can sit in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the meal. Next I would prep the french fries and go through the first step of frying them. They can sit and wait while you prepare the mussels. Once your mussels go in the pot to cook, go ahead and complete the last step of frying the fries, and everything should be ready at just the right time!
Frites (French Fries)
5 medium russet potatoes
Enough canola oil to fill half a pot
Scrub potatoes under running water to get rid of all dirt. Pat dry. Peel potatoes and rinse. Cut potatoes into thin or medium-sized strips (about ¼ inch thick). Fill a large pot halfway with canola oil and turn heat to medium-high. While oil is heating, thoroughly dry the potato strips with a towel.
Once oil is ready (it will pop when sprinkled with water or fizzle when you put a potato stick in it), add half the potato sticks. Make sure they are completely covered in oil. Fry, stirring occasionally, until they start rising to the top of the oil and look soft and limp (6 to 8 minutes). They will remain pale looking, so don’t wait for them to turn golden.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes to a colander lined with paper towels. Add the remaining potato sticks to the oil and repeat process. Before you transfer the second batch to the colander, remove the first batch and put in a baking pan lined with paper towels. The potatoes can sit and wait until the rest of the meal is ready to go, before the last step of re-frying them.
When the rest of the meal is almost ready, add half the cooked potatoes back into the oil stirring frequently until golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to colander. Pat potatoes with paper towel to take off excess oil. Transfer potatoes to dish and sprinkle with sea salt. Repeat with remaining batch. Serve at once.
Serves four (or two if you’re both really hungry!)
2 pounds mussels
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, pressed or finely diced
1 cup fennel, thinly sliced
2 cups white wine
2 bay leaves
6 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons Pernod
Salt to taste
Scrub the mussels under cold running water and pull out any beards. Discard any mussels that are broken or open and don’t close when you tap them on a hard surface.
Melt butter and olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté for a minute or two before adding the fennel and garlic. Cook vegetables for about 5 minutes. Add the wine, bay leaves, and thyme sprigs and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 5 minutes. Taste the broth and add salt to taste. Add the mussels, drizzle the Pernod over them, and shake the pot so that the mussels get tossed with the liquid (you may need to stir them to make sure they all get coated with some of the broth). Cover and cook for 4 minutes, shaking pot occasionally. Mussels should all be open. Sprinkle parsley over them.
Serve into deep bowls, discarding any mussels that did not open. Pour a generous serving of the broth into each bowl. Serve with a side of french fries.
The ingredients are really simple, but don’t be fooled; the process of making aioli requires lots of care and patience. The key is to pour the oil in very slowly. My first batch was a catastrophe because I got ahead of myself and, after about five minutes of slow pouring, thought I could increase the speed and pour a little faster. Everything went from a nice creamy thickness, to instant watery green soup. There was no salvaging it after that. So remember that the key here is patience. Stick to a constant slow stream of oil and you’ll be just fine.
4 egg yolks
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¾ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon water
Salt to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Put the egg yolks, garlic, lemon juice, and salt in a food processor or a mixing bowl and mix until light and creamy (in the mixing bowl, you can either whisk by hand or use an electric mixer – I recommend the electric mixer; your arm muscles will thank you). Add the oil very slowly – I recommend dripping it from a teaspoon or tablespoon – whisking constantly until the mixture thickens. Once all the oil has been incorporated, mix in the parsley. If the mixture is too thick, add the tablespoon of water or a bit more lemon juice. Season to taste. Serve with french fries.
The sauce will keep for up to three days in the refrigerator. I love adding it to all sorts of dishes (mushroom omelets with fresh thyme, fish baked in the oven, rice and vegetable casseroles…the possibilities are endless!)
Eat, enjoy, and laugh deeply!