Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Five dollars a kilogram

Simple. Cheap. Easy. The fishmonger at my local market sells live black mussels at $5 per kilo. Even taking into account the fact that 1 kg of live mussels yields just over ½ kg mussel meat, that’s a pretty generous seafood meal for two people at a next to nothing cost.* And by lucky coincidence, locally farmed. And healthy. Brilliant.

Mussels have been a formative food experience for me. I love tinned smoked mussels (it’s my deep dark secret) – with a little lemon squeezed over, and fresh cracked pepper, I believe smoked mussels on water-crackers validly constitute a meal. The first time I ever tried a fresh mussel was in New Zealand, and I chose one so enormous that I nearly choked on it. I repeated this experience recently in an Italian restaurant, eventually tactfully spitting out the giant bivalvia mollusca into my napkin. That night I consumed a bowl of mussels that was bigger than my head.

Just after I finished high school I spent several weeks being a vaguely ineffectual volunteer at an children’s home in Fiji. During this Christmas period the orphanage received gifts to assist with care of the children – of particular note: barrel upon barrel of live fresh water mussels. We ate mussels every way imaginable and then some – raw, steamed, cooked in coconut milk, fried, curried, boiled. Every meal, every day for a week. It was years before I could bear to eat shellfish again.

Between the near-death-by-choking experience and the all-you-can-eat-and-then-some experience I am vaguely surprised how much I still love to eat mussels. And until recently, I was too intimidated to cook these at home, and paid instead for spaghetti pescatore and boullibaisse and moules et frites.

There is something inherently scary about cooking live seafood. Overcooking, undercooking, the possibility of ‘bad’ shellfish, complicated cleaning.

But really – it’s so easy. And so damn cheap!

*I’ve also noticed packets of vacuum sealed fresh mussels in the local supermarket (not nearly so well priced, but still much cheaper than the chicken/beef options otherwise available for protein choices).

Chilli mussels

1kg black mussels
2 small bulbs fennel
2 small brown onions
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, toasted
1 medium chilli (or more to taste) - minced
100ml dry white wine
½ kg very ripe tomatoes
Olive oil

To clean the mussels – most mussels you buy in fishmongers will be pre-cleaned – if not, using a very sharp knife, chip away any barnacles. To ‘beard’ a mussel – grab hold of the little fine ‘hairs’ sticking out and give a short, sharp yank.

Trim, halve and core the fennel bulbs, then finely slice. Finely slice the onions. Mince the garlic.

Roughly chop the tomatoes.*

Heat a generous slurp of olive oil in a very large deep fry pan or big pot (about 3 or 4 tablespoons). Sauté onions, fennel and garlic until translucent. Add fennel seeds and minced chilli/s. Cook for 1 minute.

Add tomatoes and wine, cook off alcohol (bring to a rapid simmer and cook for a few minutes, until the smell and taste of alcohol disappears).

Now – magic: add the mussels to the pan. Cover with lid and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until most of the mussels are opened. (If there are any un-opened mussels after this, I like to cook those ones just a little longer – about 2-3 minutes. Discard any un-opened after this). Spoon the opened mussels in deep plates or bowls with lots of the tomato sauce and a squeeze of lemon.

Serve with fresh crusty bread (for dipping) and really nice white wine. Or red wine. Or beer. Enjoy.

Note that I don’t add salt to this dish, as the mussels have a lovely ocean taste.

* You can use tinned tomatoes, same weight. When using fresh tomatoes, I prefer to peel and de-seed. This is fussy, and really won’t matter if you don’t.

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