Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If by the sea...

There's something so French about a bowl of mussels, and comforting. The classic triumvirat of mussels, beer and Belgian fries stands out as one of the greatest whole meals one can have at a bistro. Its an awesome hands-on endeavor, no forks of knifes involved, just grab the food and shove it in. Its a return to childhood, but with adult greatness.

I used to not consider mussels a great thing to get at a bistro, the logic being, you get this huge bowl, but its mostly inedible shells, so in reality all you get a small amount of meat for too high a price. But once you do it at home, you learn that its not so much about the quantity of meat, but the whole of the experience that matters. Even if you skip the beer and sides, you still get a great dinner experience, a great weapon to have in you kitchen arsenal, with the warming weather and to balance out all that barbecueing that's going to obsess most of our suburban citizens.

Not that barbecue isn't fun and all, but every day?

To begin, get some fresh mussels. A two pound pack will set you back a little less than five dollars, and you can feed two to four people on that, depending on what you serve as a side. The mussels should be bought no more than a day before you intend to serve them, and as fresh as possible; there really isn't any healthful reasons to age seafood, just more likely that they'll go bad and cause severe food poisoning, so consider yourself warmed.

You need to start by picking through them for the dead and the shells that are cracked. Again, this is to prevent spoilage and food poisoning. The way to test them at this stage is by making sure that the shells are closed; if the shell is slightly cracked open, tap it gently with your fingernail. If it closes, its still alive and good. Toss all the shifty ones and the dead, don't feed them to your pets, its not worth the vet bills. Clean the shells by running them under cold water and trimming off any fibrous elements from the surface. Most of the time that job got done for you when they packed them, but better safe than sorry. Once that's taken care of, set aside.

Next, you want to make your base broth; a small sliced onion or French shallot; a clove of garlic, sliced or crushed; one tomato, diced; celery leaves, roughly chopped; Italian (or flat leaved) parsley, roughly chopped; cooking liquid. Using your stockpot, heat up some good olive oil over medium heat and sweat the onion or shallots until they soften and become translucent, then add garlic, heating slightly; never stop stirring, or you'll burn the stuff. Add the tomatoes, and the greens, warming it and stirring it up. When the tomatoes start to soften, add your cooking liquid. You really don't need a large amount, maybe about a cup or two at the bottom of the pot, and let simmer for about five minutes. At that time, add the mussels and cover.

The cooking time is pretty short, about 5-6 minutes. At that time, check on it to see if its ready; if the shells have opened, its done. Transfer to a large serving pot and pour the soup over the lot. Discard any shells that didn't opened, they were dead to begin with and are not edible.

Serve with a fresh baguette, or good bread, perhaps a nice green salad. This is a great way to have a social meal, as everybody shares the pot. Its also great for adults, as overall, his is a meal that is eaten nearly entirely with the hands, using one set of shells as a pincer to remove the flesh from the others. The cooking liquids make a very flavorful soups, and allows for an easy stretching of the mussels so that what would be a whole meal for two can be extended to four, especially if you have the baguette and the salad as accompaniment.

I use the vague term cooking liquid to give you full leeway as to what it could be. Use what you have, whether its beer, white wine,

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