Cooking with “Shells”
April 28, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Whenever I think of poetry and food together, I think first of Craig Arnold and his debut collection, Shells, in which food and cooking are recurring images. Yesterday marks two years since Craig disappeared on the island of Kuchinoerabujima in Japan. I didn’t know Craig, but was lucky enough to meet him through a mutual friend and spend a couple days playing taxi-driver during the DFW leg of the whirlwind reading tour following Shells‘ release. He was warm, funny, charismatic, and had an energy for poetry unlike any I’d yet encountered.
But this post isn’t meant to be a eulogy. I wrote more on that taxicab weekend and something of a remembrance on my old blog when they called off the search, and you can read that here if you like. Rather, I hope for this post to be a nod to a fine poet who made an impression on me, a lover of food and travel, a guy I really, really, selfishly wish I could read more of. I also want to do more than just post a poem or two of his and call it good. As I reread Shells last week, I had the idea of using the book to build a menu. Many of the poems simply mention food. “For a Cook” is possibly the closest thing to a verse version of Kitchen Confidential you’ll find and has elements of a recipe, albeit a sabotaged one that’s probably best avoided. “Hot,” the first of his poems I ever encountered, doesn’t give a recipe, and I’d be scared to try if it did, the subject being a man who scorched away his sense taste with years of chili pepper abuse. Two poems, though—”Scrubbing Mussels” and “Saffron”—give both ingredients and loose directions, so I went with them.
I should say up front that I kind of screwed this one up. I’d never cooked mussels before, and Kelly’s usually on rice detail. Here’s what I did, though. Hopefully we can learn from my mistakes.
(Mussels in White Wine)
“…Once they are cleaned, and more
or less alike, they’re ready to arrange
in the skillet, large enough for a single layer,
with chopped onions and garlic, maybe a pinch
of tarragon—no salt, they will provide
the salt themselves—butter, a half-inch
or so of dry white wine. Replace the lid,
turn on and light the gas. Make sure the match
is thoroughly stubbed out….”
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- one small white onion, chopped
- 5-6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 lb fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded (discard any that aren’t shut tightly to begin with)
- 1/4 tsp tarragon
- juice of half a lemon
I started by sautéing the onion in butter and olive oil over medium heat until just translucent. I added the garlic and sautéd another minute before arranging the mussels in a single layer, along with a half-inch of white wine and a pinch of tarragon, then covered the skillet and cooked for 8-10 minutes until all the mussels opened, discarding the ones that didn’t. I removed the mussels, tenting them with foil in a separate bowl, then blasted the heat and added a squeeze of lemon to the remaining liquid, hoping to reduce this to a sauce. When the liquid reduced by just over half, I poured it over the mussels to serve.
Of the two, this was the more successful recipe. The sauce didn’t quite come together as I wanted, but I also didn’t really plan for it. Doing it again, I’d make sure to get a drier white wine. I’d also probably follow Craig’s instructions more closely, putting everything in first then lighting the heat and letting all cook together rather than doing the onions and garlic first.
(Saffroned Rice Pilaf)
“…Sauté the rice to the color of a pearl
in oil flavored with pepper, cinnamon bark,
bay leaf and cardamom, the small green kind.
Simmer until the spices have all floated
up to the top—if you want to, pick them out.
Just before it’s done, stir in the saffron
crumbled and soaked in milk….”
- 4-5 tbsp olive oil
- 5 cardamom pods
- 2 bay leaves
- 7-10 whole black peppercorns
- 3/4 inch of cinnamon stick or about 1/4 tsp, broken
- pinch of saffron
- 1/8 cup milk
- 1 cup white basmati rice
There’s a reason Kelly makes the rice, it would appear. I was thrown at first with Craig’s instruction to sauté the spices (an Indian method called tarkaring, I’d find out later). I also couldn’t imagine quite how the dish was meant to turn out, so I asked the nice folks at Reddit for advice. After establishing that I was after some sort of pilaf, and with a loose set of instructions, I went at it.
The problem now was that I had no idea as to the proportions of the spices. Rather arbitrarily going with the above, I warmed a good bit of oil in a pan then sautéd the cardamom pods, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and bits of cinnamon slowly until they became fragrant.
Then I got confused. I retrieved the spices and set them aside, then put in the rice, sautéing until “pearly.” I tried to mash up all the spices but the bay leaves in a tiny pestle and mortar, reread the poem and realized they were meant to stay in until they floated to the top at the simmer stage, tried to put some of the now-mashed spices back in, then added 1 1/4 cup water and brought everything to a boil. The spices came right to the top so I started taking them out, then decided to leave them in. The poem said it was optional anyway, and they were now too pulverized to easily retrieve.
I also never covered the rice to let it properly steam. While it was trainwrecking on the stove, I warmed about 1/8 cup of milk and crumbled in a pinch of saffron to soak. After the third round of adding more water to the unevenly cooking rice, I consulted Kelly—furiously grading in the other room—and confirmed that, yes, I should’ve covered the rice from the start. I tasted it and was met immediately with a numbing sensation on the tip of my tongue. Too much cardamom, or maybe I sautéd the spices too long, or shouldn’t have pulverized them….
In the end, I never did get the rice cooked through evenly. With the mussels finished and the rice at least al dente in most spots, I killed the heat, stirred in the saffron mixture, and let it steam, covered, for 5 minutes more.
So, there it is. The rice, you’ll see, is wrong and rather horrid looking. Kelly didn’t taste the over-numbing cardamom like I did, so maybe I just got a big dose early that never wore off. The mussels were good, if a little too sweet for the generic white wine I cooked them in. A success? Not really. A fitting tribute? Maybe? I like to think Craig would’ve approved of the sentiment—the odd, ekphrasis of food describing a poem describing food. Maybe next year I’ll try again. Maybe I’ll go with the Thai after all.