Respect the Mussels

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Sunday dinner in the spring and early summer is always a great chance to move away from the traditional Sunday roast and eat whatever takes our fancy. Something that I always associate with summer holidays is a big plate of mussels. It brings back memories of holidays in Brittany, when the kids were young, when they were served with frites, lots of bread and a bottle of cold Muscadet or local cider. I had never tried mussels until I was well into my twenties because they were something that I had only really seen in jars and they never looked very appetising! I also remember when I was about six a friend of my Mum and Dad scraped one off a rock on the beach in Greystones, prised it open and ate it raw. I was traumatised.

So my first taste of mussels was when I was on holiday in Puglia in Southern Italy in about 1991. We ordered the seafood antipasti completely by accident, thinking we had ordered the vegetarian starter. The dishes kept on arriving and as well as prawns, calamari and baby octopus, two different dishes of mussels were placed on the groaning table. Perhaps it was the heat or the exceptionally cheap local red wine, but we devoured the lot without hesitation. There was an earthenware dish of mussels on the half-shell, stuffed with breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic, drizzled with green Puglian olive oil and served sizzling straight out the pizza oven. A second dish was served with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, chilli and onions. Both were just beautiful and cooked till the very fresh mussels were perfectly sweet, plump and tender.

So, since my accidental introduction to mussels, I have regularly cooked them at home and I always think there is something quite festive about them – perhaps because of that association with carefree, sunny holidays. There is something great about a huge bowl of steaming mussels in the centre of the table with everyone digging in, eating with their fingers and mopping up the sauce with bread. Conversation stops and all you can hear is the clatter of shells being chucked into an empty bowl – and the odd slurp.

We are very lucky to have a great supply of very fresh, small, sweet Roaring Water Bay mussels farmed in the clean Atlantic waters of West Cork. I am making Mussels with Cider. It’s my take on the classic Moules Marinieres – but you will never find cream in my sauce – for me it is completely unnecessary and takes away from the simplicity of the dish. Plus, my husband is a founder member of the anti-dairy league when it comes to fishy dishes, so this recipe keeps everyone happy.

Roaring Water Bay Mussels with Cider

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Serves 4 -6

  • 2 kilos of mussels
  • Olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • 5 finely chopped shallots
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 cloves of garlic crushed
  • Half a teaspoon of chilli flakes
  • Half a pint of dry cider
  • Juice of a lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chopped fresh parsley to serve

Preparing your Mussels

Mussels cook very quickly – but there is one thing that I think you need to spend a bit of time on if you are going to cook them at home. First thing is to wash and prep them thoroughly. I rinse them in lots and lots of cold water about three times before checking them over for any cracked, open or broken shells, which should be discarded. I then “de-beard” the mussels by running a sharp knife around the edge of the shell and “shaving” off any fibres. I then rinse them again in lots of fresh water and then leave them standing in fresh cold water, ready to be drained in a large colander for cooking.

Making the Sauce

It is really worth taking time to develop a good deep flavour for this sauce, so I tend to start this before washing the mussels. I use a large heavy saucepan, in which I heat the olive oil and butter to fry the finely chopped shallots, the bay and the thyme very gently and very slowly for at least 10 minutes. You are aiming for a golden savoury mush. Add to this the garlic, the chilli flakes and the seasoning and fry for a couple more minutes. Turn the heat up and add the cider. Bring it rapidly to the boil for about three minutes, add the mussels and bring back to the boil. Place a lid on the saucepan and cook for 7 minutes. Just give them a good shake every couple of minutes. When they are cooked, the mussels will open. If any have not opened, they should be discarded.

Using a slotted spoon place the mussels in a large heated dish or bowl and then add the lemon juice to the pan juices and bring once again to the boil. Add the chopped parsley, pour over the mussels and serve.

I serve this with bread, or with fries. A glass of cider or a glass of Muscadet will always help things along. And do remember to put out loads of napkins because it can get messy.

 

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