Flex your mussels

Matt O'Leary
October 8, 2009

Please forgive the dreadful pun and console yourselves with the knowledge that it could have been worse if I'd have chosen a different seafood to write about this issue. (‘Prawn stars', ‘Whelk hello', or ‘A clam for all seasons', for example. Lucky escape, huh?) As it is, this article is again devoted to one of the best small things to come out of the ocean, and one which lends itself very well to dinner ideas at this time of the year: the mussel.


Finding out that these tasty little beasts are popular across Italy was a comforting moment: finding out that they're available from supermarkets, at a good price and of high quality, was even better. And, for simple bivalves that need to be steamed open, they are surprisingly versatile and can be cooked in a number of ways and complemented with a variety of different flavours, depending on your tastes. Good news all round, unless you're allergic to shellfish.


Shop-bought mussels will come in little nets, with the barnacles chipped off them and the ‘beards' (tough, fibrous matter along the edge of the tear-shaped shell) scrubbed off. They need to be cooked when they're still alive, and to determine whether or not they're suitable, each shell should be checked. If it's tightly closed, it's fine. If it's open, give it a tap: a shell that closes up of its own accord is edible, but one that stays open or needs to be forced shut should be thrown away. Sometimes, mussels are quite sandy: you can place them in a large bowl of cold water with half a teacup full of flour for half an hour, and they will disgorge most of the grit and inedible crunchy things that they contain. Once you've done this, give them a good rinse and they're ready to cook.


Frequently, in the first instance, mussels are cooked in liquid with vegetables, which encourages the shellfish to exude a liquor as they cook. Once the mussels have all been eaten, this delicious broth can be mopped up with bread or cooked rice. Traditional zuppa di cozze ingredients include onion, celery, garlic, parsley and stock, maybe with or without tomatoes. Alternatively, you can take flavours from the burrida, such as chopped tomatoes, anchovies and mushrooms. Shallots, leeks, saffron and cream go very well with mussels, as does white wine, as a liquid to cook them in: since the shellfish don't take a long time to cook, the wine infuses the vegetables, shellfish and broth with a rich, alcoholic taste (the dish is ready before it's all cooked away).


Once the mussels have been cooked, and the shells have opened, yielding the soft, pale interiors-see the recipe for mussels in white wine-they can be further tinkered with for the sake of some really great flavours. If you remove the bivalves from their shells, dredge them in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fry them, they can be served as snacks: sprinkle them with lemon juice and seasoning and serve while still hot. They can be served on slices of fried bread, with a good spoonful of their own juices drizzled over the top and a grind of black pepper. If you're serving mussels like this, it's sometimes best to cook them in their own liquid only, by putting them in a pan alone, covering it tightly, and letting them steam themselves open for a few minutes over a hot flame. This preserves the rich ocean flavour of the shellfish.


Mussels can be used on top of pizzas-with a simple tomato and parsley accompaniment, perhaps-and in salads with chopped egg, potatoes, vinaigrette dressing, and parsley (again). Or you can try opening the shells right up and removing one half, arranging the mussels in the remaining half-shells, and covering with garlic butter: these can then be baked, roasted or grilled until the butter starts to sizzle.


Grilled mussels, cooked like this, should be arranged on plates and served with something good to dip them into.


Once you've made up your mind how you want to cook the mussels, you're at liberty to make a few more decisions of your own: What are you going to serve them with? Do you want to cook them on a flame outdoors? Is bread enough to mop up the juices, or would you like to try it the Belgian way and serve them with French fries? One thing is certain, though: a dish of mussels leaves you satisfied enough to savour the flavour for long after the dishes have been washed, but is also light enough to leave you wanting many, many more.





Ingredient of the fortnight: WET GARLIC


At this time of the year, garlic that was planted late last autumn is at the stage where it looks as if it's almost ready to dry and use. The bulbs are small, and the leaves are strong, rich green and broad. The whole thing looks a lot like a cross between a spring onion and a tiny leek. The only thing which really gives it away is the distinctive smell, which at this stage is still at the ‘lovely kitchen aroma' stage, rather than the ‘stranger standing way too close to you on the bus' level.


However, garlic at this stage of its development is also great to cook and eat. When it's very new, fresh or ‘wet' garlic can be eaten raw, with a good sprinkle of sea salt, in fine slivers, in a salad: the taste is there, but tempered by sweetness. The white bulb, when you chop it, will fall into tiny slivers, since the cloves haven't properly formed yet.


The bulb can also be added to sauces, whereas the leaves make a fine addition to slow-cooking soups, stews and sauces, adding a lot of flavour and texture. As soon as the bulbs start to go a little more fibrous, crinkled and swollen on the outside, they should be cooked instead of eaten raw, since the flavour is starting to develop a bit too much. Try frying it lightly in oil or butter, then adding some chopped cabbage or greens to the pan, covering it and allowing the vegetables to steam among the sauteed garlic.



Recipe of the fortnight: MUSSELS IN WHITE WINE


500g mussels, cleaned as described elsewhere on this page

250ml white wine

80ml water

25g butter

2 sticks of celery, chopped

3 or 4 small onions or shallots, peeled and diced very finely

1 small bunch parsley, washed and chopped very finely


Melt the butter in a deep pan with a lid, over a low heat, until foaming lightly. Add the celery and shallots and allow them to cook lightly for a few minutes, until starting to soften.


Add the mussels, the wine, and the water, and increase the heat to bring it to a simmer. Cover tightly and cook for 10 to12 minutes, or until the shells have fully opened.


3. Season, stir in the parsley, and serve.



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