1. Cooking

Escape to taste of France with Julia Child's mussels simmered in wine

Every time we have Moules à La Marinière for dinner it feels so elegant. As if we are in France, eating mussels very much the way Julia and Paul Child would have. The recipe comes, of course, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In Julia Child's masterpiece of a cookbook, she dedicates several pages to mussels, starting with this simple and fresh preparation. Mussels are steamed for a few minutes with wine, shallots, parsley, thyme and butter. The buttery, herbal sauce infused with the juices of mussels at the bottom of the pot — you'll need a spoon and plenty of bread for that.

In her ode to moules, Julia says: "Mussels, with their long, oval, blue-black shells and delicious pink-orange flesh are often called the poor man's oyster." And yet, it always feels quite luxurious when we make these. If you asked me how many times I'd served either at home, well, it's mussels 5, oysters 0.

Her recipe serves six to eight, but we cut it down for two. We used 2 pounds of mussels at $3.99 a pound. Not bad. And the guys working behind the seafood counter are always the chattiest, so there's that.

After some chopping and preparing, it's just a few minutes before dinner is ready. Child recommends soaking the mussels for quite a while before cooking, and we've done this before. We even tried adding a bit of flour to the soaking water, hoping the mussels would eat and fatten up just a bit more, but now I skip the soaking step. Most mussels you'll find at a grocery store are farm-raised, and they're not carrying as much grit as Child's mussels would have. Just rinse them under cool running water.

There is the matter of debearding the mussels. Not a big deal. Wrestling with the mussels is kind of fun. Wipe down a mussel and find the brown tuft of hairs sticking out one side. Tug firmly and yank off the beard. Some are bigger than others. If the mussel isn't giving it up, use a paper towel for a better grip.

Let's not forget the wine. I prefer a muscadet as it's a classic pairing with shellfish, and it's my favorite white wine at the moment. The taste is clean and crisp, and it's what I prefer to cook the mussels in, too.

Pick up the wine and mussels on your way home, and you're halfway there. This is good enough for the weekend but entirely reasonable on a weeknight. I'm not spending tonight in the South of France, and I don't think you are either, but serve this dinner on the patio and it's not hard to pretend.

Ileana Morales is a writer who cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend Danny Valentine, an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's blog, . She can be reached at