Flexing Those Mussels
No recipes here, exactly, rather a process that shows how starting with one ingredient cooked simply and just building piece by piece and then making slight adjustments you can develop a range of tasty, and simple to cook, dishes.
The turning of the month from August to September always signals one thing to me immediately – there’s an “R” in the month! This simple matter of spelling that, in the English language, we have a continuous run of months – May, June, July, August – lacking the 18th letter of the alphabet might not seem to have much significance at first. Until you realise that this is when seafood, such as oysters and mussels come back into season, having been left alone to breed undisturbed through the summer months.
For me this has a special significance as I live happily close to a stretch of the North Sea that produces the finest mussels I’ve tasted. I am unashamedly partisan in this. On the other side of the sea the Belgians have understood this and celebrated the quality of their mussels for centuries. I have eaten, and enjoyed, these succulent molluscs around the world. The Pacific certainly produces wonderful, large, juicy, specimens. But, you can’t match those shellfish that lurk in the shallow band of the North Sea between East Anglia and Belgium. This is not a lagoon of clear, blue, sparkling water but rather a murky marine soup, and there’s the whole point. It is that “murk” that provides the mussels, along with other shellfish such as the famous Cromer Crab, with the nutrients that develop a subtly sweet flesh that can’t be matched anywhere else.
But, enough of my local pride. You may have guessed by now that I am a great fan of the humble mussel. Wherever you live, you can probably find very tasty mussels at least some of the year. I find it strange how so many people seem daunted by the prospect of cooking mussels. It really is very easy. Throw them in a pan with a little liquid and let them steam open. All, seemingly more complex, recipes are just a few stages along from this simple start. If you are concerned about poisoning yourself and others with less than fresh examples, again it just takes one simple stage. If open, make sure they close when given a sharp tap. If closed, make sure they open when given a sharp tap, It means they are still alive. You can’t get any fresher than that. Do discard any that don’t pass the test.
Here I have started with a method with steamed mussels – a single instruction rather than a recipe – and then demonstrated how, by building bit by bit, this develops into eight very straight forward, and quick to cook, recipes.
To cook mussels, put them in a saucepan, add a splash of boiling water straight from the kettle, cover with a lid for about three minutes until all the mussels have opened. Discard any that refuse to open.
Now, rather than using plain water, try a splash of dry white wine instead. As you’re using cold wine instead of boiled water this will take a little longer, about 5 or 6 minutes. You could start things off by softening some chopped shallots by very gently frying in butter for three minutes, maybe add some crushed garlic for a minute before putting the mussels and wine in the pan. Then finish with a little chopped parsley. So far, so simple, but that’s it – you’ve just made moules mariniere. For the creamy classic version moules mariniere a la crème, all you need to do is take the pan off the heat and, when the liquid stops bubbling (this way the cream shouldn’t split), stir in some double cream or crème fraiche. It really is that simple.
Beyond the classic version, there a whole range of mussel dishes that can achieved by a few simple changes to the above.
Instead of wine, use dry cider. Now you’ve got moules Normandie.
Or rather than wine or cider, use beer (ideally a Belgian blonde beer or a golden ale) and you’ve got the Belgian classic moules flamande. A typical Belgian trick is to use leek, sliced to roughly the same length as the mussels and then into ribbons, instead of shallot. As the shells open, the ribbons of leek drape themselves over the mollusc inside.
Moving on to something just a little more complex, throw a shot of orange liquer into the pan before pouring in the wine, squeeze the juice of half an orange on top of the wine and grate in the zest of the same orange. Moules a la’orange.
You can travel all the way to South East Asia. In addition to shallots and garlic, some grated ginger or galangal, chopped lemongrass and chilli give you that taste of the orient. Coconut milk instead of cream and coriander (cilantro) leaf replacing the parsley complete the transition. I have eaten this in Thailand, but suspect the origin may be in Vietnam, where colonial history often leads to French/Asian fusions.
Leave out the lemongrass, and instead use garam masala for an Indian mussel curry. You could also add some cubes of white fish.
Starting with the most basic steamed open shells and building up just a little, and with a few twists and tweaks, and you’ve got eight delicious and simple mussel dishes to your repertoire. There’s nothing to stop you using your own imagination and inventing another. Or adding other seafood, or even replacing mussels completely with clams, cockles or whatever shells end up on your fishmonger’s ice.