It didn’t seem like overkill when I dropped twenty pounds of good unsalted butter and ten liters of Moroccan olive oil on Jess Thomson’s porch in April of 2013. She’d need at least that much for recipe testing for A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus. As I drove away, I couldn’t have known that Jess, the book’s writer, would return home laden with groceries. That she’d tumble into her house with full hands, throw the food on the counter, snatch the oil, and accidentally leave the front door open a tiny crack as she rattled through her pantry, making space for the big boxy oil tins. That her hungry Rhodesian Ridgeback would get her nose through said crack, pry open the door, and eat three full pounds of the butter before Jess discovered her licking her chops on the porch.
There is, to be sure, something infinitely satisfying about seeing one’s life’s work represented in a cookbook. Although only about half the recipes in A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus come from the restaurants, the book does a good job of defining what’s happened in my restaurants over the last 18 years. It’s a snapshot of the work we do, but also living proof that what we do evolves constantly. Eli Dahlin, for example, the chef at The Walrus and the Carpenter when we wrote the book, is now the chef at Damn the Weather, and Bobby Palmquist heads up Walrus.
It’s fabulous to know that the book is already encouraging so many people to gather around food. And while A Boat shares my personal life in ways I still find quite surreal—total strangers now talk to me about my birthday party as if they’ve been coming for years—it doesn’t tell the story of the writing of the book, and all the stories created during that fabulous, delicious year: The dog eating the butter. The time we got stranded in a motor boat off the coast of Spee-bi-dah, Washington. The writer breaking her collar bone, which meant she couldn’t take notes well while sloshing in a boat, because she had to hold on with her one good hand. The photographer, Jim Henkens, accidentally smashing his forehead on the trunk of his car. The awful experience of getting violently ill during a photo shoot. The time I decided wearing a white shirt and flip flops was appropriate for gathering wild watercress from a thigh-deep creek near the Hood Canal, and spent the rest of the day sopping wet.
Here’s a glimpse of A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus by the numbers—the numbers you’ll never find inside the book itself:
45: Total estimated number of pounds of unsalted “Crémerie” butter used for the writing and testing process.
0: Number of cans of Rainier beer permitted to be consumed before catching a single spot prawn, according to photographer (and spot prawner extraordinaire) Jim Henkens. (I broke the rule by opening a beer before we’d caught one, which he was certain would mean we’d be skunked that day. We weren’t.)
10: Estimated number of cases of Rainier beer consumed during the project. (It became our proverbial rabbit’s foot.)
2: Number of donkeys that stared at us every morning outside our rental house, when the cookbook team went to Normandy, France for a photo shoot. (You’ll find Chocolat pictured on page 306, but Basilique was our favorite.)
3: Estimated number of cases of wine required for photo shoots, not including 4 magnums of rosé.
87: Age of Jess Thomson’s grandmother, who has discovered what is so far the only error in the book.
4: Number of boat trips taken for oystering, spot prawning, and crabbing.
5: Number of photo shoots required to get the zucchini bread just right.
8: Morning start time for the fall 2013 oyster-eating extravaganza at Bar Aux PTT, on rue Cler in Paris, where Jim Henkens took the photograph on page 234.
2: Numbers of heaping plates of frites, bottles of calvados, rounds of camembert, vats of rice pudding and legs of rare juicy spit-fired lamb consumed at La Cale, the coastal Normandy restaurant that inspired the Mussels in Cider recipe.
Below you’ll find the recipe for those mussels, which I hope you’ll make. Follow the meal with a good camembert, which the oystermen on Normandy’s coast always put on great crusty bread on top of a layer of butter. And remember as you lean back in your chair that while the recipe might be the start of a good meal, it’s what follows—the wine and the conversation and the stories—that count the most.
Mussels in Cider*
Dijon, crème fraîche, tarragon
Prep Time: 30 Minutes // Total Time: 30 Minutes // Serves 8
In Blainville-sur-Mer, a tiny town on Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula, there’s a quirky little restaurant called La Cale, whose official street address is “La Plage,” or, simply, “the beach.” It overlooks the tidal flats that stretch five kilometers into the sea—an area that accounts for more than 10 percent of France’s oyster production—but at high tide, when all traces of aquaculture disappear, it’s simply a beachfront bistro with a few legs of lamb on an open hearth. It’s homey, complete with picnic tables and a “serve yourself ” rule that explains why patrons cut their own bread, fetch their own water, and choose their own wine from a shelf next to the bar. The rule does not explain why the room is adorned in giant needlepoints of various nudes, both male and female, but the artworks add a je ne sais quoi that I’d miss if I returned to find them replaced with something more modest.
When you order mussels there, they come in the pot they were cooked in, steamed in cider and topped with a generous dollop of crème fraîche, which whoever has thought to grab a ladle gets to stir into them just before serving. This recipe is similar. And as you do at La Cale, you should eat a small mussel first, then use its shell as a utensil to pry the mussels out of the remaining shells.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 cups dry hard cider
3 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, for seasoning
¾ cup crème fraîche
½ cup loosely packed whole tarragon leaves (no stems)
Crusty bread, for serving
In a large, high-sided saucepan or soup pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted, add the shallots and cook, stirring, until the shallots are soft, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the mustard, add the cider, then increase the heat to medium-high. Add the mussels and cook, covered, until they begin to open, about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and begin transferring the mussels that have cooked to a large bowl, stirring and prodding until all the mussels have opened and have been transferred to the bowl. (Discard any mussels that do not open.) Increase the heat to high and simmer the cider for 3 minutes, or until it has reduced by about a third. Season the liquid to taste with lemon juice and salt, then reduce the heat to low. Return the mussels to the pot, add the crème fraîche and tarragon, and stir gently until the mussels are warmed through and coated with the cream. Serve immediately, with the bread.
*(c)2014 By Renee Erickson with Jess Thomson. All rights reserved. Excerpted from A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus: Menus and Stories by permission of Sasquatch Books. Photography by Jim Henkens