Mussel Power

Mussel Power

I have loved mussels ever since the early 60’s, when my mum and dad first took me to eat them on the old boat in Barcelona harbour that served the shellfish fresh from the mussel “farm” surrounding it. From the boat itself to the tiny tables crammed on its deck, everything looked broken down and shabby but all this was forgotten when we were served chipped bowls of wonderfully fresh mussels cooked in garlicky sofrito with chunks of crusty bread and tumblers of rough wine. I have tried countless times but whether it was the surroundings then or the excitement of eating and just throwing the empty shells over the side of the gently rocking deck all those years ago, I have never been able to make the dish to taste quite the same.

Those were the European Mytilus edulis, a blue-shelled mussel; small enough for two dozen to make a reasonable portion. I could not consider comfortably sitting down to twenty four of our green-lipped Perna canalicula however, delicious though they may be; I usually serve 12-15 per person depending on the size of the mussels, and this makes them one of the cheapest, healthy, and versatile delights to be found in the supermarket.

Before I go on to some recipes, I feel I should give the usual warnings about mussels to avoid. The most important one is: do not cook…or even buy…any mussels with broken or cracked shells or any that are open and do not close at least partially, when tapped. Good mussels should feel heavy for their size and smell fresh like the sea and not at all of fish, or indeed anything else.

There are two schools of thought about the second common warning, which is to discard any mussels that do not open when cooked. The first opinion is this is wise and correct and the second is it isn’t. Some say cooking may affect the muscles, which keep the shells closed, in a different ways and so sometimes the mussels remain closed whilst still being good to eat, if opened with a knife say, whereas cooking these non-starters until they open would only result in tough over-cooked shellfish; I will leave you to decide. The best, and safest, thing though, is to check them carefully before you buy them and again, when they have been cleaned and de-bearded just before cooking.

Whether a mussel lover or a newcomer to the joys of this bivalve, most people will have heard of this simplest of mussel recipes:

Mussel PowerMoules à la Marinière

48-60 mussels – depending on their size – cleaned and de-bearded
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves of garlic – peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots or 1 medium-sized mild onion – peeled and finely chopped
A bunch of flat-leaf parsley – finely chopped
700ml dry white wine
A bouquet garni – a small tied bunch of parsley, French tarragon or thyme, and a bay leaf
30g butter – cut into small pieces

Into a large pot put the mussels, a generous amount of pepper, the garlic, shallots or onion and half of the chopped parsley; pour in the wine and add the bouquet garni. Cover and cook over a high heat for 8-10 minutes, shaking the pot from time to time to make sure all the mussels open.
When mussels are open and the ones still closed dealt with, add the butter and continue to cook uncovered for another 5 minutes, then remove the bouquet garni and serve the mussels at once in bowls with the strained cooking juices poured over them. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with lots of crusty bread and serviettes.

Serves 4.

Bring a change to your barbecue menu by wrapping cooked fresh mussels in strips of streaky bacon and threading them onto skewers then mopping them occasionally with a mix of honey, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and Kaitaia Fire as they grill on the barbecue until the bacon is crisp.

If, like me, you are a lover of Indian food this recipe might become a favourite:

Mussels Cooked with Indian Spices

3tbsp peanut oil
2 large onions – peeled and finely chopped
5 cloves of garlic – peeled and crushed
3 tsp grated fresh ginger root
3 fresh red chillies – seeded and finely chopped
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp ground fennel seeds – ideally lightly toasted and freshly ground
3 tsp ground coriander seed – ideally lightly toasted and freshly ground
½ tsp Cayenne pepper – or to taste
48-60 mussels – depending on their size – cleaned and de-bearded
1 cup water
Chopped fresh coriander leaves
A lemon

Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions, garlic and ginger and cook them over a medium heat until the onions are soft and start to brown.
Add the chillies, ground spices, fennel and Cayenne pepper and continue to cook for a minute or two.
Then add the water with a good pinch of salt, cover, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes before adding the mussels. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the mussels have opened.
Check for seasoning, adding more salt if required. Sprinkle generously with the chopped coriander and squeeze over lemon juice to taste.
Serve at once in bowls with the cooking juices and Basmati rice.

Serves 4.

The region of Normandy, in France is famous for its dairy produce, seafood and apple brandy, Calvados. It is also noted for its pigs and mushrooms. Put all of them together and you could get a dish as good as this, which the people of Normandy often rather modestly call Moules à la crème but which is also known as:

Moules à la Normande

50g butter
100g smoked bacon – diced
1 clove garlic – crushed
2 shallots – thinly sliced or 1 medium onion – peeled and finely chopped
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
48-60 mussels – depending on their size – cleaned and de-bearded
1½ cups finely sliced white button mushrooms
1 apple – peeled, cored and cut into small dice
75ml Calvados or other apple brandy – you could use ordinary brandy at a pinch
50ml cream
Salt and pepper

In a large pot melt the butter over a medium heat then add the bacon and cook until starting to brown.
Add the shallots or onion, garlic, thyme and mushrooms and continue cooking until the onions soften, about 5 minutes.
Add the mussels, Calvados and diced apple. Cover and steam until the mussels begin to open, then pour in the cream, stir and slowly bring to a boil.
Season with salt and pepper and serve at once in bowls with the cream sauce. Serve with crusty country bread or with slices of good French bread which have been golden fried in duck fat or butter.

Serves 4.

For appetisers, mussels can be served cooked and on the half-shell simply with a dipping sauce of good olive oil blended with lemon juice, garlic and dill, or a homemade aioli. And for special occasions, just top each cooked mussel in the half-shell with a small spoonful of snail butter (no snails are involved – it’s just butter blended with crushed garlic, parsley and seasoning) and a few breadcrumbs then flash under a hot grill until golden and delicious.

Oh mighty mytiloid! Oh unselfish shellfish! What pleasure the humble and inexpensive mussel can give! But then don’t just take my word for it… go out and flex your own mussels.

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