I’m cooking my way through Chatelaine’s cookbook and at recipe #33, Mussels with fennel, I ruined my first pot of the year. I was hoping to make it through one entire season before having to replace an item of cookware, but at least I made it to Daylight Savings Time. Sigh. And the charred sauce undoubtedly altered the taste of the meal which I’m sure would have been extremely tasty.
I didn’t know I had ruined the pot- and the meal- until it was time to scoop out the leftovers and do the dishes. That’s when it all became clear: the smoky aroma of the sauce and its ashtray-reminiscent aftertaste; the largely untouched portion of dinner on my sister-in-law’s plate; the expulsion of liquid from my toddler’s mouth after I fed him a soupy spoonful; and my perplexity at the unexpected flavours I was attributing to the mixture of fennel and hot chili-garlic sauce.
This was not a difficult recipe. Nor was this my first time making mussels. I was a little sleep-deprived, yes, as we moved our toddler from a crib to a bed a few days ago and it has been an adjustment for us all, to say the least. But not sleep-deprived enough to have ruined my one and only pasta/steaming pot and what surely would have been a lovely dinner. My poor husband came home from playing hockey expecting a tasty meal but was met with a plea for his scrubbing skills on a charred pot, inedible leftovers and the necessity to scrounge through the fridge searching for satisfactory food after having expended so much of his energy on the ice.
He wanted me to recount the events leading up to the pot-burning incident. All I knew was this: I had doubled the recipe so that it would serve four (three adults and a toddler) rather than two. I had been cooking everything in our wide cast-iron skillet when I eyed the amount of mussels I was about to add and realized that I needed a large pot so that everything would fit. My sister-in-law served the two-year-old some Portuguese corn bread and helped me to transfer the boiling tomato sauce into a large pasta steamer pot. I then cooked the mussels for about six minutes, stirring once as instructed, then noticed an odd smell that I thought was probably some food debris smoldering away in the element. Wrong.
We ate the meal trying to figure out what specific ingredient, or combination of ingredients, could give the sauce such a strong, smoky flavour. The fennel? The chili-garlic sauce? Wrong and wrong again. We later discovered that the ashy taste was caused by the layer of charred tomatoes, onions and fennel that coated the bottom of the pot in a thick blackened paste.
I suppose there were a few factors contributing to this unfortunate outcome: I was hungry (what else is new) and in a rush; I had transferred the boiling sauce into a cold pot and placed it on a hot element; and the pot was very thin as its purpose was to boil water for cooking pasta or steaming vegetables.
In any case, I will have to try this again sometime. My sister-in-law never had mussels before. And, as my husband said, “You still haven’t.”