"Instead of taking the kids out for lunch today to celebrate the end of the school year, we made ice cream on the patio."
It's sentences like these, from Andrea Reusing's cookbook, Cooking in the Moment, that cast in particularly harsh light a winter's day spent at a desk while a hellish hybrid form of sleet-snow rages outside.
So when we found out that Reusing, of Chapel Hill's beloved Lantern restaurant, was in town promoting a new hotel she's opening this summer in Durham, we invited her over to the test kitchen, hoping for a little ray of end-of-school sunshine. Ice cream wasn't on the menu. Mussel soup was.
"Mussels, to me, have the best flavor of any seafood,” she said, as she steamed mussels in wine on the stove top, then turned to slice shallots and grab a few prep bowls, somehow instantaneously at home in a foreign kitchen. "Mussel stock is so briny and beachy, with a deep flavor, and none of the funk you'd get with fish stock."
Reusing won a James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2011, and her restaurant, full of seasonal, Asian-inflected dishes, is a favorite of the chef set, though her recipes are as approachable as she is. Take one for "whole roasted onions," which is little more than onions roasted for an hour at a 425 degree oven until blistered. The final step: make a slit on the top, and "insert a big pat of butter or spoonful of crème fraiche." Don't mind if we do.
Which is not to say Reusing is a simple cook. She chose salsify, a long, parsnip-ish vegetable, to accompany the mussels not just because the dish could use their heft.
"It’s actually called mock oyster," she said, peeling the root and slicing it into discs, which she poached gently in mussel stock. "It has this nutty flavor, just like shellfish, which works perfectly with the mussels."
The dish was her take on Billi Bi, a famed French mussel soup that, one origin story has it, was created at Maxim's in Paris and named after soup fan William B. Leeds, an American metal tycoon.
Reusing remembered how, years prior, her parents would enjoy bowls of steamed mussels after the kids had gone to bed. "They'd make us some god awful frozen dinner, and then I'd wake up a few hours later and smell these mussels," she remembered. "I'd come out to find them eating big bowls on trays in front of the TV, and I thought it was so exotic, sexy, grown up."
She paused, then corrected: "I didn't think my parents were sexy." She dunked a finger into the bubbling broth and took a quick taste. "Anyway, I still feel like they're for a special occasion."
After the mussels had steamed open, which she helped along by putting a fearless, experienced hand straight into the steaming pot and tossing them about, Reusing separated the meat from the shells, and then further subdivided the whole mussels from the ones that had torn apart. Those went back into the pot, where shallots and garlic had sweated down in butter, and then everything was blended together.
Most Billi Bi recipes call for cream and egg yolk to be added at the end, to thicken and enrich. Though Reusing had brought out the cream in preparation, when she saw the final product—velvety and luxurious, wafts of briney buttery air streaming from the blender—she nixed it. Into a bowl it went, along with a few plump whole mussels, a spoonful of salsify, and a sprinkling of rough-torn sourdough croutons.
The sleet-snow was still pelting the windows, and the last day of school was a ways away, but a spoonful of Reusing’s soup—rich and buttery, with a thrum of saltwater underneath and the crunch of a few salsify coins on top—made that not matter quite so much anymore.
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