For a variety of (boring-to-you) reasons, my therapist has tasked me with spending five minutes every day engaging in what we’re calling “abundance thinking.” This is just a fancy way of saying that she wants me to actively think about what I have and how grateful I am to have it every single day. I do this quite a lot, already, actually, but I appreciate the reminder that it’s something to be ritualized. Like meditation or prayer.
Saffron seems like a good image for abundance, doesn’t it? Think of a field of crocus flowers–a forever of violet petals, each with only three crimson stigmas to be picked for commercial spice. Now think of the abundance of patience it takes to harvest them each by hand. Abundant value infused in every pinch you add to a dish–the callouses on the pickers’ hands, the muscle ache, the stigma stain–golden–over everything.
No wonder the stuff costs $15 a bottle at Wegmans, where a sign in the spice aisle directs you to speak to someone at customer service if you’d like to purchase it.
I’d never cooked with saffron before this week, so Iwas excited to work with it. It’s been an interesting experience, not perfect, but one which allowed me to learn some stuff in between recipes. That’s a very good thing.
Recipe #1: Cream of Mussels Soup with Saffron (Billi Bi)
(adapted from Epicurious.com)
2 pounds mussels
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 cup white wine
1 pinch–1/4 tsp– saffron threads
4 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
5 tablespoons flour
5 cups Fish Broth (or bottled clam juice)
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf enclosed
1 egg yolk
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground white pepper, to taste
I first had this soup with my mom at a French restaurant called Ondine, just up the road and over the border from our hometown, New Fairfeld, CT. I remember the building’s facade being pink stucco, and the dining room being candlelit and intimate. I also remember being there on several occasions with both of my parents, eating gluttonously and shutting the place down, much to the irritation (I’m sure) of the staff. I ate there before at least one prom, too–in my white satin poofy dress or my blue satin poofy dress or my hot pink strapless satin poofy dress with matching 80s poofy hair. The place was classy even if we were not.
This soup, though, is much more than classy. It’s positively elegant. The sort of soup whose aroma is almost as compelling as its taste. Almost as satisfying. I wonder now if that had to do with the saffron. Surely it must have.
Here’s the thing, though: with saffron, a very little bit is elegant and aromatic and blissfully honey-sweet. A bit too much is, it turns out, metallic and terribly nasty. I’m sorry to say I found this out the hard way in trying to recreate Billi Bi. The end result was like eating something you knew should be exquisite, had it not been marred by a heavy hand.
So, I tweaked the recipe above so that instead of adding a full teaspoon of saffron (as was called for), I suggest you use only 1/4 of that. Trust me. Less is definitely more here.
First, scrub your mussels and wash them well under cold water. Discard any whose shells are cracked before cooking. Set them aside.
In a pot large enough to hold the mussels, combine the shallots, wine and saffron threads. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. The saffron is now infusing the wine with a fair bit of magic. Add the mussels at this point, cover the pot tightly and cook over medium-low heat until the mussels open, about five minutes. Pull them out as they are done.
Remove them from their shells when cool enough to handle, and put them in a bowl. Strain the cooking liquid and reserve.
Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cover, cooking for 3-4 minutes or until they are translucent. Add the flour and cook for another three minutes, stirring constantly with a spatula or wooden spoon.
Gradually add the fish stock and cooking liquid, whisking to break up lumps as they form. Add the thyme, bay leaf and parsley sprigs (you will pull these out later), and simmer for 30-45 minutes, skimming the top as needed.
Now make a liason by combining the egg yolk with the cream in a separate bowl. Add in 1 cup of hot soup, slowly so the egg doesn’t scramble on you. Add this liquid back into the pot and simmer for another three minutes.
It was at this point in the cooking that I laughed (a little hysterically, it must be said) out loud at the crazy-rich ingredients: Saffron. Egg Yolk. Heavy Cream. Butter. Mussels. Stop thinking about your cholesterol, dammit! You eat so well and carefully most of the time, don’t you? You sure do deserve this abundance. Keep going and make your tongue/spirit/soul happy.
Add the mussel meats back in and heat through. Add some white pepper to taste. At this point, I have not added any salt at all to the soup and found I didn’t need to. Taste before you add.
Serve in shallow bowls with some parsley sprinkled on top and crusty baguette for mopping up abundance.