Excess, by its very nature, is special — and why we do it from time to time. Our common time for excess is that beautiful stretch of sharing multi-course meals, reveling in an array of sweets, and just general extreme eating and drinking from Thanksgiving until New Year’s.
In my view, we tend to view what some could call “unhealthy eating and drinking” out of the context of our (fingers-crossed) healthy diets. That’s quite understandable; excess is, after all, one big whoop. But it’s also an exception, and most of us know that. It’s also why we have New Year’s resolutions.
Isn’t the beginning of each year merely an appropriate time to recalibrate? To put five or six weeks of excess into proportion? I think so. Thus, I offer some recipes for heart-healthy cooking and eating to ease us back into a more balanced diet for the New Year as a whole. Plenty of time to wait for our next Turkey Day.
Enjoy more fish and seafood instead of red meat
I am a red meat eater, but as I grow older, I also view cooking and eating fish and seafood as a corrective to consuming excessive amounts of red meat protein.
I am also half-Belgian and, hence, I adore mussels steamed in any number of ways (OK, from more- to less-healthy ways too). I like to tell myself, as well, that mussels are high in several beneficial vitamins and minerals not easily accessible in many other foods, contain more iron and protein, ounce for ounce, than beefsteak, and also sport those famed omega-3 fatty acids.
Buy mussels at markets or grocers that traffic in fish; turnover is key to freshness. You may safely thumbs-up or thumbs-down with a simple sniff of them: they should have no smell at all or merely a whiff of a sea breeze. (The smell test holds for most fresh fish of any sort.)
It’s likely they’ll come in a mesh bag; keep them in that, or at least loose and not in a closed plastic sack. Store them (for a couple or three days at most) in the frig, in a large bowl, covered with a very wet towel. Do not store mussels in water, as if returning them home; the live mussels will drown and die.
To cook them, first clean them well with a couple of good rinses under cold water in a colander and “debeard” them. A few may still have little membranes, called “beards,” with which they attached themselves to their growing poles. Pull the beard (aided, if necessary, with a paper towel or paring knife) toward the hinge end until it comes out of or away from the mussel.
We Belgians, for whom mussels are the national bivalve, use a small one, once relieved of its meat, as a pincer of sorts in order to eat the remainder. It’s a neat trick that I learned from my mom.
Belgian Steamed Mussels
Serves 4 as a generous main course; or 6 as a first course; from “Everyone Eats Well in Belgium” by Ruth van Wearebeek (Workman, 1996).
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots or 1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
4-6 pounds mussels, thoroughly cleaned and bearded
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine (If you prefer not to use alcohol, learn more about cooking without wine or beer.)
Melt the butter in a pot large enough to hold all the mussels over medium heat. Add the shallots and celery; cook, attiring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the mussels, sprinkle with thyme, and add the bay leaf, 1 tablespoon parsley, and a generous grinding of black pepper. Pour the white wine over the mussels and cover the pot tightly.
Bring to a boil over high heat and steam the mussels in the covered pot until they are opened. This will take from 3-6 minutes, depending on the size of the mussels. Be careful not to overcook the mussels, as this will toughen them. As soon as most of the mussels have opened, take them off the heat. Shake the pot several times to toss the mussels with the buttery vegetables. Discard any mussels that have not opened.
Spoon the hot mussels into soup plates along with some of the broth. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon parsley just before serving.
Omit the green herbs and celery; substitute neutral oil for the butter; add 1 clove minced garlic, 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, and 1 cup coconut milk or cream. Dress with chiffonade of fresh basil instead of parsley.
If using meat, stretch it with vegetables
As I said, we’re going to “ease into” healthier eating for the New Year. There is no need to go to another extreme of excess, that is, to give up altogether, say, red or white animal meats.
Eat them, still, just splay them out in the pot and on the palate with agreed-to and agreeably delicious heart-healthy foods: plant foods, vegetables in particular.
Dorothy Parker, the American writer, poet and wit, famously defined “eternity” as “two people and a ham.” This was in a day — the early 20th century — when hams were always large, bone-in matters, not the tinned, tear-drop-shaped (or, heavens, the “logs” of pressed scraps and shavings) from the latter half of the century or today.
You yet well may have some leftovers from a holiday time whole, bone-in ham, if only the bone and scraps of meat clinging to it. You may make with that a delicious garbure, a thick, vegetable-and-ham scrap stew from far southwestern France.
It originates in the Pyrénées, the Basque country, a corner of Gascony and the town of Béarn — the birthplace of D’Artagnan, the Musketeer, and béarnaise, the sauce.
It gets its name from “garb,” a medieval French term for the sheaves of grain often seen in heraldic crests. Thick and chunky, so that it must be eaten with a fork or large spoon, it recalls the pitchforks used to gather and harvest such grain.
Garbure des Pyrénées
Garbure des Pyrénées is a thick French stew with white beans, cabbage and optional meat. Translated, adapted, and prepared by Bill St. John from pyrenees-bearnaises.com. Serves 4-6.
1 duck leg confit (optional)
1-2 tablespoons duck fat (OK to use extra virgin olive oil)
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 medium to large cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and minced
1 small (or 1/2 medium) head green cabbage, outer leaves removed, cored and cut into thick wedges (do not use red cabbage but OK to use Savoy or Napa cabbage)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch-sided pieces
1 large turnip, peeled and cut into 12 pieces
2 large yellow or white “waxy” potatoes, 1 peeled, 1 washed but unpeeled and each cut into 8 pieces
2 cups large white beans, partially cooked and their cooking water (or 2 cups canned white beans such as cannellini and their canning liquid)
1 large rib celery, small diced
Bone and pickings (up to 1 pound’s worth) from a bone-in ham, excess fat trimmed away
1 teaspoon pepper flakes (Espelette is most traditional, but Urfa or Aleppo also OK)
3 6-inch sprigs fresh thyme, left intact
Freshly ground black peppercorns
Sea or kosher salt to taste
In a large pot or Dutch oven, render any outlying fat from the duck leg confit, if using, and set it aside. When cool enough to handle (this can be done while the remainder of the recipe cooks), remove and discard the skin and bones from the duck leg and tear the meat into smallish pieces and reserve it.
Add the duck fat or olive oil so that there are 2 tablespoons fat in the pot and cook the onions, over medium-high heat, until translucent, about 8-10 minutes, adding the garlic halfway through in order not to burn it.
Add the pieces of cabbage, carrot, turnip and potato to the pot, stirring. Add the bean’s cooking water and enough additional water to cover everything by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then add the celery, beans, ham bone and meat, pepper flakes and thyme sprigs.
Lower to a simmer, put the lid on the pot, ajar, and cook at a good simmer or low boil, stirring occasionally, until the beans are cooked through and the other vegetables are tender but not falling apart, 1 hour or more. Taste for and season with salt, if needed. (The ham may have added sufficient salt.) Remove both the ham bone and the woody stems of thyme (the leaves will have fallen away into and seasoned the garbure).
At this point, the garbure is best made a day (or more) ahead, left to cool so that the fat rises and congeals (and is skimmed away). But you also may make it day-of, merely skimming any unwanted fat from the surface as it cooks.
Heat well to serve, adding the reserved duck confit shreds so that they warm up well, about 10 minutes before ladling out the garbure into large shallow bowls. Some Béarnais cooks serve the garbure over slices or pieces of stale country or rye bread; still others, with the addition of grated cheese. Others make it with additional or other vegetables.
Everyone tops it with a swirl of good olive oil.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]