Next time you’re looking for an alternative to red meat or chicken, consider the mussel. It’s a healthy and economical option, and so very quick to cook. Mussels are also fairly plentiful, so there’s no guilt attached to having them regularly.
One of my earliest memories from family holidays in France is the sight of café terraces packed with couples bent over bowls overflowing with blue-black shells. There were glass carafes of chilled white wine, beaded with condensation, and torn-off hunks of fresh bread splitting shards of crust onto laps and floor. People were eating with their fingers and the smell was of garlic and the salty sea. For a little girl used to a knife and fork and ‘proper’ table manners, it seemed mysterious and exciting.
Later, the Belgian restaurant chain, Belgo, introduced me to moules-frites as the perfect after-work dinner. Mussels were fiercely trendy for a while. They may still be, but they are also timeless. There’s something about that dark, prehistoric shell and the simplicity of preparing and eating mussels that sets them above food fashion.
If you’re picking them from the wild, make sure it’s from unpolluted waters. Reject any that are broken and choose only those with closed shells. As with all fish and shellfish, there should be no fishy smell. They don’t keep, so eat them the same day you buy or collect them.
To prepare mussels, tip them into a sink of cold water. Throw away any that don’t open once tapped. Pull off any beards and scrub away barnacles. Rinse in a couple of changes of water to get rid of any sand.
Place the mussels in a large pot with a little liquid – this could be water, wine, vermouth, cider or stock – and some herbs, shallots and garlic. You could also turn up the heat by adding chilli, or spice them up with ginger, lemongrass and coconut.
As soon as the shells start opening they are ready. Discard any that don’t open fully. Serve with lots of crusty bread.
Bring the flavours of southern France to your kitchen with this simple way of cooking mussels.
- mussels, cleaned - 1.13kg/2 ¼ lb
- dry white wine - 125ml/½ cup
- olive oil - 1 tbsp
- shallots, finely chopped - 4-6
- celery stalk, finely chopped - 1
- garlic cloves, finely chopped (more if you like) - 2
- finely chopped parsley and thyme - 1 tsp each
- basil - to garnish
- bouquet garni - 1
- tomato paste - 1 tbsp
- ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped - 500g/1lb OR
- chopped tomatoes - 1 x 400g/14oz can
- salt and pepper -
- sugar - 1 tsp