It seems to me that people are more than happy to munch away on mussels in restaurants. But when it comes to cooking them at home, they shy away. Maybe it’s down to the fact that as a nation we’re a bit scared of shellfish and that we don’t trust ourselves to cook them properly.
But they really are so simple to prepare at home and can be souped-up with everything from garlic, wine and shallots — for a simple moules marinière — to a punchy Thai version with lemongrass, galangal and all the usual South Asian suspects.
Aside from being easy to flavour, mussels are also incredibly quick to cook, meaningn that they’re an impressive (and, most importantly, easy) dish to serve for friends. Though I prefer to share a big steaming bowl of them one on one with a nice bottle of wine.
The best thing about mussels is they look so dramatic, thanks to those gaping black shells and the amazing aroma they give off when they’re tipped out of the cooking pot. In all honesty, I wasn’t a big fan of mussels as a kid; in fact, I don’t think I tried them until I was 14, but now I can’t get enough.
People sometimes appear to struggle when it comes to actually eating mussels, but the best way to retrieve the funny little lobe of meat is to simply use an empty shell as a pair of pliers and prise it out. It will take a bit of practice, but you’ll look like a proper Belgian once you’ve mastered the technique.
Mussels cooked in Somerset cider
Mussels are beginning to hit their peak now as the waters around the UK start to cool. We’re all so used to pouring wine over our mussels we sometimes forget to use our native drinks — cider and beer work brilliantly with mussels and a favourite of mine is Julian Temperley’s Burrow Hill dry cider.
Scrub the mussels thoroughly and remove the beards. Discard any with open shells that do not close when sharply tapped. Melt the butter in a cooking pot large enough to hold the mussels. Add the onion and garlic and cook gently for 3-4min to soften the onion. Add the cider and simmer for a minute or so.
Add the mussels, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook over a high heat for 3-4min, shaking the pan frequently and giving them an occasional stir. Drain the mussels in a colander over a bowl to catch the liquor.
Return this to the pan, stir in the cream, if using, and add parsley. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper to taste. Meanwhile, divide the mussels among warm bowls, discarding any that have not opened. Pour the liquor over the mussels. Serve immediately, with some bread (see my recipe) for mopping up the juices, remembering to provide spare bowls for the shells.
An Asian version:
Finely chop some lemongrass, ginger or galangal, chilli, an onion, a few cloves of garlic and simmer for a couple of minutes in some rice wine or white wine. Add the mussels and cook as with the previous recipe.
A Spanish version:
Finely chop onion, garlic and grilling chorizo sausage and cook as the recipe.
Grilled herb flatbread
This makes a great accompaniment served separately and dipped into the extra mussel liquor once you’ve worked your way through the shells. I have used a flatbread which I make myself, but you could always use the big flatbreads readily available in Middle Eastern supermarkets. Serve up in the centre of the table and let your guests break it up themselves.
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Coarsely blend the mixed herbs and olive oil in a blender and season to taste. Spread the herb mixture evenly over the bread and bake for 8-10min.