How Tarajia Morrell Makes Curried Mussels

“I have done a lot of different things in the food industry, but the part I think I enjoy the most is writing.”

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Tarajia Morrell is a food and travel writer, restaurant publicist, and founder of The Lovage, a blog dedicated to her “lifelong love affair with food.” At her apartment in New York, Tarajia made curried mussels and spoke about growing up in a food-centric household.

I'm extremely lucky because I grew up in a household where food and meals were the center of daily life. My dad was in the wine business for 50 years, and my mother taught herself to cook in order to really balance out the wines he was serving. And she fell in love with cooking as a result. She was constantly cooking for us as a family and entertaining a lot, so it came naturally to me. I didn't understand that there was any other way. We never ordered in, and we rarely went out — sometimes on special occasions. Food has always been the center of my life, even when it wasn't my professional focus.

Food has always been the center of my life, even when it wasn't my professional focus.

When I decided to turn my professional focus back toward food, I wasn't sure in what capacity I wanted to do so. I had been a struggling actor here and in Los Angeles, and I was always very jealous of my friends who had gone to acting school. So when I decided to refocus on food, I wanted to learn by the book. I enrolled in a four-month class at the French Culinary Institute and learned in the old-fashioned sense. 
Going to school was the best, but it also made me realize immediately that I didn't want to be a professional chef. But I still wanted food and cooking and restaurants and farmers and telling the stories that sort of grow out of loving food to be a part of my life. I just found myself so excited, buzzing with interest and intrigue with the things that were being taught to me, and the way that I naturally express that is by writing it down and by musing on it. 

I have done a lot of different things in the food industry, but the part I think I enjoy the most is writing. 

I started this little blog called The Lovage, and then that led to some more jobs writing for publications. It was fairly organic in the way it just happened. Meanwhile, I was working in restaurants and doing restaurant and chef-focused public relations. I have done a lot of different things in the food industry, but the part I think I enjoy the most is writing.I have a very hard time writing about things that are not considering sustainability. Obviously, the word sustainability is complicated because so little of food production is actually sustainable in any way. But, nonetheless, there are some better and more careful ways to go about it. I gravitate toward telling the stories of the chefs who care about where their food is coming from, how it's being farmed, how the farmers are living, and the same goes for winemakers.I’m spending the lockdown trying to think of creative ways to support industry friends and restaurants. We need to continue on our new path of banding together as an industry. We need lobbyists and coalitions and representation in government, and not just for Big Food chain restaurants, but for the ma-and-pa shops and the small businesses that are our homes away from home. For now, you can order delivery from the places you love by picking up the phone and calling the restaurant. Place the order the old-fashioned way, and eliminate the shaving off of profit to pay for a delivery service if you can take a socially distanced walk and pick it up yourself. Commit to going to restaurants again in person as soon as you can, even if that looks and feels a bit different from the delicious bubble we’ve all been lucky enough to enjoy these last years. We’ll get back there eventually, but things are also going to be different for a while. 

We need to continue on our new path of banding together as an industry.

On this day, I made curried mussels. It's a recipe April Bloomfield used to have on the menu at The Breslin. I was a waitress there for two years, and it was one of my favorite things she made. Of course, her mussels are far superior to mine. You start by making the curry base, which is a combination of a ton of sautéed shallots, a bit of sautéed garlic, and then I think ten different spices that you toast in the pot with the slightly brown shallots. So it's like fenugreek, freshly ground fennel, freshly ground cumin seeds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, turmeric, and coriander. And then chili and then some black pepper. So that's your spice base, and then you add to that tomato purée from a can and lemon juice, lime juice, and a little bit of pineapple juice, which just adds this really nice sweetness that I feel you need to balance out the heat from the curry. One of the little things I love about this recipe is that you use cilantro as a garnish on top, but you also use the stem, which you add to that simmering tomato-spice paste and you purée that. And that just lends such lovely brightness.
Next, you sauté thinly sliced fennel and add that to the mix after you've puréed it. Then you add some chickpeas that you've rinsed, and that's your curry. I think there's something so satisfying about making mussels, or clams, at home because you're there for that aha moment when you open the pot and they've gone from being all closed up to being open and, like, Hi! And mollusks are the most sustainable things we can be eating from the sea. Plus, they're affordable, so they're great for a big dinner. I recommend trying to get the smallest mussels possible. Small is better, I think. So then the mussels open and you spoon them into a bowl and you top it with Greek yogurt and a tangle of the cilantro, and I added some of the fennel greens. And then you just finish it with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt.Photos by Liz Clayman

I love entertaining. There used to be a thing people always said: "Don't make something you've never made before when you're having people over." I think it's total nonsense. Absolutely make something you've never made before! Your friends have no place at your table if they're not going to be open to it being potentially imperfect.