Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mussels - Moules A La Pulbah!

One of my early food memories was tagging along with my father while he collected mussels from the shores of Pulbah Island, a small uninhabited island, now a nature reserve, situated in Lake Macquarie near Newcastle in New South Wales. He collected the mussels in a hessian bag to keep them alive and cooked them on an old piece of corrugated iron that he used as a barbeque hot plate over burning logs.

Photo Steve Shanahan
The barbeque was a permanent fixture on the island for fisherman to cook their catch. When the mussel shells opened, he drizzled them with white wine, sometimes beer, and we ate them with our fingers, while the fragrant juices dripped down our arms.

My mussel-eating memories were stirred again when on holiday in Brugge in Belguim, we visited an outdoor eatery in a Belgian Beer House whose specialty was Moules A La Mariniere (Mussels in wine) The mussels in broth were served in small metal buckets and wait staff brought dozens upon dozens of these overflowing mussel filled buckets out to the customers, while the unmistakable aromas of ocean, wine and butter wafted around the diners. Although the Belgians served their mussels with french fries, instead of crispy bread and butter, we managed to soldier through the fries with true grit and determination.

There are a few rules however, to observe when buying mussels, so be fussy, and your efforts will pay off. Always check for freshness and ensure they are still alive. Live mussels should smell like the ocean, and if they smell fishy, don’t buy them. To avoid the mussels dying from suffocation, ask your seafood retailer to place them in a loose bag in water or kept damp. They should not be put into plastic bags or clingfilm. If they are wrapped in butcher’s paper, tear a hole in the paper to allow them to breathe. I like to take my own mesh bag to the shop to transport them home. Never buy mussels that are cracked, chipped broken or open, they should be tightly closed. They are best eaten the same day of purchase, or if necessary stored overnight in the bottom of the refrigerator in a bowl covered with a wet towel.

The preparation and cooking of mussels is very easy and made even quicker now with seafood retailers selling mussels already de-bearded and cleaned. If you are not lucky enough to buy the pre prepared mussels, scrub the mussels well to remove any grit or shell and pull off the beard (this is a little, hairy protrusion used by the mussel to attach to rocks or pylons) just before cooking.

They really don’t take long at all to cook, so make sure you have everything prepared before you start cooking. The colour of the flesh will range from orange-red (female) to creamy white (male) and both are delicious. Finally, as a general rule they will steam open in a pot within two to four minutes, don't overcook them, as they tend to become tough.

The mussels, perfect for an outdoor lunch, served in a large stone bowl in the centre of the table, with baskets of crusty bread, a pot of French unsalted butter and a fresh, green salad will make for convivial gatherings, but don’t forget the finger bowl. Great with a crisp, citrusy riesling or a young semillon.

Serves 4-6

1.5-2kg live mussels
100g unsalted French butter
small pinch of saffron threads
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 leeks, trimmed and finely sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp sea salt
¾ cup white wine
¾ cup fresh orange juice
extra sea salt to taste
2 tsp grated orange zest
1 medium tomato, sliced
¼ cup mint, coarsley chopped
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

De-beard and scrub the mussels, if uncleaned, then rinse and set aside. Combine the saffron with 2 teaspoons of boiling water in a small bowl and set aside.

Melt half the butter in a large, heavy-based pan. Add carrots, fennel, leeks, ginger and salt. Gently fry vegetables, covered, over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until softened but not browned. Stir often to prevent the vegetables catching on the bottom of the pan.

Add the remaining butter, then the wine, orange juice, extra salt to taste, and the saffron with the water. Bring to the boil, then stir in the reserved mussels and orange zest. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered, for 3 minutes. Scatter over the tomato and herbs and continue cooking for a further minute, or until the mussels have only just opened, throwing away any that won’t open. Remove from the heat immediately and serve.  This article first published in the Canberra Times 6 October 2010.