The legendary Curnonsky, prince of gastronomes, struck terror in the heart of any restaurateur who spotted him walking through the front door. His real name was Maurice-Edmond Sailand. Despite his flashy public life he was intelligent and philosophical and he influenced the modern culinary history of France to an extraordinary degree.
There were his brillant cookbooks, his rip-roaring articles attacking the enemies of good food and good wine, and his often stormy literary and restaurant reviews. There were his wonderfully witty speeches at the grand dinners of the great gourmet societies, speeches that were reprinted (because their serious philosohpy was clothed in such generous humor) in newspapers.
He said that he never cooked in his apartment. One friendship, with Madeline Decure, the beautiful, charming, talented amateur cook and gastronomic journalist, dominated his life. She never discussed what she prepared Curnonsky when he dined regularly at her Paris apartment. Research, however, has led me to some of the notes she left after her death.
When Curnonsky founded his magazine, Cuisine et Vin de France, he made Decure editor-in-chief. Years later after she had resigned she continued to write a cooking column for Curnonsky's wine magazine, Revue du Vin de France. Reading through a sequence of her writing, I found many subtle indications as to Curnonsky's tastes and how she set about making him happy.
Because he was forced to dine so lavishly in public, at home he longed for provincial dishes: light nonfattening yet high in protein nourishment, with strong character and personality. All these requirements seemed to be met by an extraordinary salad.
Madeline Decure left precise instructions as to how it should be prepared. She called it a salad of mussels with potaotes. Mussels are pure protein, entirely fatless nourishment. If they are stemed with herbs and wine, they have a fine flavor. They are inexpensive. MADELINE DECURES SALAD OF WINE-DRESSED MUSSELS AND POTATOES (4 to 6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed clean not peeled 4 1/2 pounds blue mussels, washed, scrubbed, bearded* 1 cup dry, tart white wine 1 medium yellow onion, minced 1/4 cup chopped parsley, leaf only 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried Coarse crystal salt or kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 teaspoon dijon mustard 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar 1/3 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons shallots, minced 2 tablespoons chopped chives, or minced green onion tops 1/3 cup red pimento strips, for garnish
Set potatoes to boil in salted water. Place musssels in sink and wash thoroughly under cold running water. Brush, soak and scrb them until they shine, pulling off bysuss beards. Transfer to a big, heavy, tightly lidded pot in which they will be steamed over high heat on top of stove. Pour wine over and around mussels. Sprinkle with minced onion, half of the chopped parsley, thyme, salt and good grinding of pepper. Bring to rolling boil so mussels begin to be enveloped in steam. Clamp on lid, leaving heat high, shaking pot every couple of minutes, keeping it boiling rapidly for about 5 or 6 minutes.
Carefully take pot off heat. With kitchen tongs life out each opened mussel and place in a bowl. Unopened mussels should get 1 or 2 additional minutes of forceful steaming. When all mussels are out of pot, strain sand by straining wine liquid through several thicknesses of cheesecloth, linen or coffee filter paper. Hold strained liquid in covered jar. As soon as mussels are cool enough to handle, remove meats and hold them covered.
With a microwve oven, mussels can be opened quicker and more simply. Clean mussels as for stove-top steaming, then spread in a single layer in a large shallow ceramic or glass microwave pan. Pour wine over them and sprinkle with other ingredients. Microcook on high for 3 1/2 minutes. Give hard-to-open ones 30 seconds more. The aromatic liquid must be strained as in the stovetop method.
To assemble salad, drain potatoes and, as soon as they can be handled, peel and slice about 3/4-inch thick. Gently put warm slices into bowl; marinate in reserved mussel liquid for about 15 minutes.
When finished marinating, drain potatoes (reserving mussel liquid) and add mussel meats. In small saucepan, boil mussel liquid meats to reduce by half, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in mustard. Add vinegar, a teaspoon at a time, enough to give it a slightly tangy taste. Dribble about 1/4 cup of olive oil over mussles and potatos and toss delicately. While tossing, add the tangy mussel liquid to taste, plus the shallots. Transfer everything to bowl, or open serving platter. Decorate with chopped chives plus remaining parley and red pimento. Madeleine Decure always served this salad to Curnonsky lukewarm.
*Note to expand or reduce any mussel recipe, use these conversions from mussels in shell to drained mussel meat in measuring cup: For 1 cup mussel meat, start with 1 quart of mussels in shell or 1 1/2 pounds by weight. A cup of mussel meat contains about 25 mussels. Three pounds of mussels in shell are equal to 1 pound of mussel meat.