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I’ve been sitting here for the last 30 minutes, staring at my computer screen, wondering what to write. For the record, you’re more likely to spot Sasquatch than see me struggling for words. I usually have what amounts to some kind of brain purge syndrome where my posts fly from brain to fingertip in a matter of minutes, leaving me depleted, hungry, and questioning what country I’m in. 

Speaking of countries, the topic today is Greece. And the reason that I’m so confounded is that Greece should bring back memories galore. After all, I’ve been there not once, not twice, but thrice. I’m not liking that word, but I’m sticking with it. It’s like a combination of “throw” and “rice”. Which is what I did once in Greece. At a wedding. So maybe I’m getting somewhere with this Greek business after all.

Our visit to Greece was the first major trip that Rodney and I took as a couple back in 2001. We returned several years later to  re-visit Mykonos and Santoroni and tack on a few more islands (Rhodes, Corfu, Crete). We even did the completely optional/somewhat frightening several-day visit to Athens. Generally speaking, I should have Greek memories, and lots of them.

The problem with Greece – and perhaps it’s less of a “problem” than a “challenge”, is that much of your waking time is spent drinking Mythos (daytime) and Ouzo (nighttime). So what I do remember from our visits is patchy.

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There I am, bawling my way through the last few pages of War and Peace on Ornos beach. (My copy, for the record, is still buried there, unless the department of sanitation scooped my treasure out of the sand and hauled it off to the dump.)

There again you’ll spot us buying strappy leather sandals in a street market in Rhodes. I should say ME not WE; Don’t ask Rodney how he feels about man sandals. Or Tevas. Or short haircuts on women, which he thinks that women tell each other are “really cute” but men strongly do not prefer. (By the way, we argue about this point constantly; maybe I’ll cut my hair short one day just for spite.)

Oh look! Now we’re easing our way along busy roads on a moped in Santorini. On a mission to find the one winery on the island. Not an adventure for the faint of heart or anyone over the age of 25. Mum, I survived, please don’t worry about this anymore.

I do, however, have strong memories of the food. Whether we were sitting down to a fancy dinner in the heart of the Old Town in Mykonos, or beachside at a little taverna, I recall a freshness and simplicity that still influences my cooking today.

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A confession:

I, Jessica, lover of all things seafood, defender of raw oysters, cult follower of everything clam, have never liked mussels.

Sure, I’d order the occasional restaurant bowl, but it was less for the moules, more for the frites. The problem with mussels (not “muscles” friends – I’ve seen that written frequently, which warrants this important PSA) is that if they’re one microsecond past their peak of freshness, they become just plain wretched.

Which is how I’ve eaten them on too many occasions. Even at high-end restaurants where mussels should be held to higher standards. Sometimes a whole bowl is tainted, but most often it’s the one long-dead mussel bomb in an otherwise fresh bowl that can ruin the whole experience.

But it just so happens that on a balmy afternoon in October, we visited The Ivy in LA and my feeling about mussels was about to change.

Let’s backtrack a few days so that I can fill you in on how we found ourselves there.

Rodney and I had just started our second year of school at Berkeley and had thrown a legendary party to break in the new apartment. Reams of students and new acquaintances had poured themselves into our tiny space and we’d stayed up late into the night drinking and chatting.

On nights like these, you often end up with a string of new best friends; some of whom you never see again. Some of whom you do.

Our friend Teddy fell into the second category. Introduced through Rodney’s good friend from college, we immediately hit it off, demanded that he come to our upcoming wedding in Mexico, and promised to visit him in LA.

I was excited for our drive from San Francisco to LA. Rodney and I mapped out our trip, planning to take the scenic route down Highway 1.

Our weekend finally upon us, we took off, hip hop filling the air, and steered our way down through Carmel and the Santa Barbara wine country. We even decided to camp out overnight and I got to use my latest purchase: a thin piece of fabric that was marketed as “the world’s smallest sleeping bag”. Translation: world’s coldest sleep-deprivation chamber.

As dinnertime neared on the second day of our drive, we pulled into a gas station in Calabasas, California. From there, Rodney called Teddy and told him that we’d be arriving at his place in 30 minutes. We were in great spirits. Rodney pumped gas; he spoke with another friend or two while he topped up the tank. I strolled around and craned my neck, hoping to catch sight of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

And then it dawned on Rodney that with all of the sunshine and good times, he’d missed a crucial detail and filled his tank with diesel.

This, I might add, was no ordinary tank. We were driving our Chevy Tahoe, affectionately known as “the beast”.

For the record, if this ever happens to you, cancel your plans for the next few hours because you’ll be spending them on your back, laboriously siphoning expensive fuel out of your vehicle drop by drop.

We arrived at Teddy’s house at 11PM. The dinner that he’d prepared had long gone cold. Not the best way to christen a friendship. So we did what any good houseguest would do and attacked his wine supply.

The next day, sheepish and hungover, we were in the mood for grub and desperately wanted to give Teddy some space.

Teddy steered us in the direction of The Ivy, which at that point was popular with the movie execs. We somehow finagled a table and nestled into our patio chairs. Once again I craned my neck in search of celebrities, which, in LA, is akin to spotting monkeys at the zoo but with less giddy pointing.

I can’t remember whether we saw anyone of interest; but I do remember my lunch: New Zealand green mussels in a green curry sauce.

When you can recall the exact details of a lunch that you ate 15 years prior, you know that it was good. The green-shelled mussels were impossibly fresh, and the coconut-based curry sauce was spicy, but not overpowering.

I think about these mussels often. I’ve dreamt about recreating them at home. New Zealand green mussel though, are hard to find. I’ve never seen them since – neither on restaurant menu nor in grocery store display.

The good news is that standard black mussels are easy to find. Making it easy for you to recreate this recipe in the comfort of your own home. It’s a glimmer our lunch at The Ivy, minus the guilt and shame. Plus it has the added benefit of some pickled shallots for added flavor. Triple win.

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The yin and yang of food blogging: let’s talk about yin first. Meeting loads of new people who are hugely passionate about food; pushing myself creatively to make better, more interesting, dare I say – more sophisticated – food…and perhaps most exciting, expensing a portion of my grocery bills. The yins are too plentiful to count.

The big fat whopping yang? My dependence on cookbooks took a backseat to this newfound creativity. Over time, my colossal cookbook collection has become an historic relic, more useful now as a work of art than a primary source of comfort and inspiration.

I still love cookbooks. I still collect them and tear into them eagerly as soon as they arrive from Amazon.

But after the initial reading, which from outer space might look more like a minute-long shark attack on an unsuspecting minnow, I put them aside on my worn oak nightstand. And there, they rest, collecting dust, waiting for a better time; a distraction-free moment when I can dedicate my full attention to reading the introduction, earmarking favorite recipes, and jotting down shopping lists.

My “to read” pile now reaches higher than my lampshade.

This time that I can never seem to find? I should probably admit to myself, right here and now, that it ain’t coming any time soon. At least not until my youngest is in middle school and can move herself independently from point A to point B. At which point my oldest will be in high school, and I’ll be up late worrying about boyfriends and missed curfews. Free time is looking bleak for at least another decade.

For now, I sneak 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, to sit back and relax with a cookbook. It’s not the leisurely page-at-a-time perusal that I lust for, but it’s enough to spark the teensiest bit of inspiration.

Which is how we’ve landed on hummus today.

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There was a time, only a few months ago, when shakshuka wasn’t part of my cooking rotation.

I’d come across these eggs, baked with Moroccan or Tunisian ingredients – usually a mix of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions, and sometimes with some additional spice (e.g. harissa) and/or cheese (e.g. feta). Smitten Kitchen has a version, the New York Times has one too, David Lebovitz – well, of course, he’s based in Paris, a city that thrives on North African food. The Italians even have a version, called “Eggs in Purgatory”. Shakshuka is – as my 102-year-old grandmother would say – all the rage. Check out Feed Feed where your search for shakshuka will deliver nearly 200 results. That’s a lot of spicy eggs.

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Once you’ve made shakshuka – or any kind of spicy baked egg dish, you’ll see why it’s become so popular.

1. It’s super simple, taking only minutes to cook…just a little more tim than it would take to remove the dreaded Eggo from the freezer, pop it into the toaster, and be doused in maple syrup.

2. It’s endlessly adaptable….this version of shakshuka has barely any tomato – and virtually no sauce. The eggs are cooked in a bed of onion and green pepper, and then topped with whatever ingredients I had available in the fridge. Add this dish to the arsenal of fridge dumping meals that includes fried rice and vegetarian lasagna. And don’t we all need a few more fridge dumping meals in our lives? Your wilting vegetables would clearly prefer a spicy shakshuka fate than a trip to the garbage can.

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I’m on a one-woman mission to save the rutabaga.

Which, according to my research today, is also called a “Swede” in Europe. I was in the midst of making a Scotch broth soup with my leftover holiday lamb and Jamie Oliver advised that I should chop up a Swede and throw it into the pot along with my vegetables.

Perhaps a soup for Jeffrey Dahmer, but I vow to keep my soups human-free. Let’s refer to rutabaga using its North American lingo. And to complicate things with one more rule, let’s avoid the common Southern pronunciation “ruda-beggers” which is even more worrisome than “Swede”.

If you’re A) from Europe or B) from the South and would like return the linguistic praise, feel free. I’m Canadian and come pre-packaged with a hot mess of language issues. I call the garbage disposal a “garberator”, pronounce basil with a soft “a” and if you steal my two-four, there might be a kerfuffle, but I can be easily repaid in peameal bacon. If it dribbles I’ll just wipe my face with a serviette.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk soup.

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You may recall that I introduced rutabaga to my kids as part of our mystery food challenge. One of the interesting observations was that rutabaga smells and tastes a little like broccoli. Lauren mentioned it first, and I guffawed but then brought the object right under my nose, and sure enough, the essence of broccoli itself.

I had visited the farmer’s market last weekend and bought two more rutabagas. Broccoli is a favorite in our house, making rutabagas appealing by proxy. They’re easy to prep- just peel off the skin and dice them for a stove-top simmer or a long, slow roast.

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