How not to be afraid of mussels

The Mighty Mussel: easy, cheap, quick, low fat and delicious. Nothing more, nothing less. However, I realized after talking to a few friends that a lot of people are intimidated by the preparation….how to clean them? How to figure out if you have a bad one? How long to cook them? Well, fear not, because it’s really not that difficult. In fact, it’s downright easy. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be making mussels at every opportunity!

When you buy the mussels, they will either be pre cleaned or not. If you aren’t sure which you are buying, ask your fishmonger . The ‘wilder’ they are, the more cleaning you will need to do.

As soon as you get them home open the packet to let them breathe.
Discard any that are broken, open, chipped or damaged in any way as these are the ‘bad’ ones.

Place in the fridge until about 30 minutes before you are ready to start cooking, at which point you will put the mussels in a bowl of water (enough to cover them). This allows the mussels to expel any excess sand or salt stored inside their shells.

After 20 or 30 minutes, carefully lift the mussels out of the water with your hands or a strainer such as I have done in the pictures below- don’t  pour the mussels and water into a strainer as you’ll end up pouring the sand back on the mussels.

If the mussels have what is known as a ‘beard’  (fibers which emerge from  the shell) simply hold the shell in one hand and use the other hand to yank it out.

If there is any additional cleaning to do (barnacles, seaweed etc) use a firm brush, otherwise place mussels in a bowl of clean water until ready to cook.

A simple recipe:
Mussels take about 5 minutes to steam open and don’t need a lot of liquid. A simple recipe for 2 people is to sauté some garlic over medium heat   in olive oil until fragrant, add the mussels (about a pound, 500 grams) shake the pot then add about a quarter cup of wine per dozen mussels. Put the lid on and let steam for about 4 or 5 minutes. At that point most of the mussels will be open, but if some of them are still closed, put the lid back on and check again in a minute or so. Once they have all opened, pour the mussels and the liquid into 2 serving bowls, discard any that have not opened and eat to your hearts content! Don’t forget the crusty bread to soak up the juices!

I must have made the recipe below a dozen times since I found it in Food & Wine Magazine. It’s the perfect combination of fresh, salty, spicy, fragrant, sweet, creamy. I have altered the recipe slightly, omitting certain ingredients depending on what I have on hand in the apartment, so here you will find my version, but the original is here if you’d like to compare. Either way, it is delicious and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The last time I made this dish, I was in South Africa, in the beautiful Western Cape….Knysna to be exact. The mussels there were quite wild  and required a lot of cleaning, but it was so worth it.

Curried Mussels with Fish (serves 4):
One shallot finely chopped (if you can’t find shallots, use a medium onion)
1 Granny Smith Apple, finely diced.
1 minced garlic clove
1 tablespoon Madras Curry Powder
Couple of thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper
Generous pour of olive oil
2 pounds or 1 kg mussels, scrubbed and soaked in cold water to remove residual sand.
Half cup dry white wine (of course I always add a little more….can’t harm, right? And then I drink a glass while doing just that)
Half can of coconut milk (the original recipe called for heavy cream, but I like the flavour the coconut milk gives, plus it’s healthier)
1 pound or 450 grams cod or hake or any other firm white fish
Crusty bread for serving

Heat up the olive oil in a large pot. Add the shallots (or onion), the apple, garlic, curry powder and thyme and season with salt and pepper.
Cook over a moderate heat (VIP as this will prevent the shallots and garlic from burning) until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Add the mussels and toss with a wooden spoon. Add the wine.
Bring to a boil, cover and cook over a high heat until mussels have opened, 3 or 4 minutes.
Add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer.
Place the fish in the broth (you can cut the fish into smaller pieces before hand) and cook until the fish lightly flakes, about 4 minutes.
Transfer the fish and mussels to a large bowls and spoon the broth on top.
Serve with a lovely Sauvignon Blanc and the crusty bread!

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