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Musselling in on flavour
  |  First Published: May 2010



Mussels used to be called the poor man’s oyster but nowadays they have come into their own. I have eaten them in some of the finest Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe.

This little black shellfish is packed full of protein, low in calories/kilojoules and is rich in iron, manganese, zinc, vitamins C and B12 and (drum roll please) has more Omega-3 than any other shellfish.

To clean mussels, using your fingers or a brush, scrub them under running water. To remove the beard (this is the furry thing that is attached to the shell) grip it with your fingers and give it a good tug towards the hinged part of the shell.

If your mussels have been frozen, defrost them in the fridge and cook as soon as possible after they are thawed. They may need a little longer cooking time to open even if they are completely thawed.

In this recipe, the mussels are gently cooked until they open, releasing the juices enclosed in their shells into the pot. This gives the broth a delicious mussel flavour.

There a few options for variations on the theme following this recipe.

Ingredients

1kg mussels, scrubbed and debearded

1 leek, white and pale green parts, cut into thin slices

50g butter

1 onion, finely chopped

A generous pinch of saffron threads

200mL white wine

A sprig of thyme

4-6 whole black peppercorns

100mL thickened cream

Chopped parsley, to garnish

Method

(1) Heat the butter in a heavy based pan over a low heat. Add the onion and leek to the pan and cook until softened. Add the saffron threads to the pan and stir-fry for a couple of minutes before adding the mussels, wine, thyme and peppercorns. Cover the pan and cook over a medium heat until the mussel shells open. Discard any mussels that remain closed.

(2) Take the cover off the pan and add the cream. Simmer vigorously to allow the cream based sauce to thicken slightly. Remove the thyme sprig from the pan. Sprinkle the mussels with chopped parsley to garnish.

(3) Serve with heaps of fresh crusty bread for dunking in the sauce.

Variations

Option 1: Substitute 2-3 diced golden shallots for the sliced leek and diced onion in the basic recipe.

Option 2: Leave out the sliced leek and thyme and substitute one finely chopped red chilli, about a teaspoon of grated ginger, a little lemongrass and a dash of Thai fish sauce. To travel a little further down the path to Thailand, substitute some coconut cream for the thickened cream. You could also serve these mussels and their sauce spooned over some hot noodles.

Option 3: To take a side road to Spain, take the basic recipe, remove the leek and substitute finely diced red capsicum, a generous pinch of paprika and a good slug of dry sherry.

Option 4: Visiting India, add level teaspoonfuls of turmeric, chilli powder, ground coriander seeds, a little ground cumin and a good teaspoon of garam masala. As with the Thai version, try coconut cream instead of the thickened cream. To complete the Indian picture, serve with steaming hot naan bread.

Option 5: This option is to simply serve the basic recipe tumbled over some steaming hot pasta. This is absolutely delicious and a good idea if you have a ‘loaves and fishes’ moment and the number of people turning up for a meal at your place suddenly increases.

Handy Hints

(1) Allow the mussels and broth to settle for a couple of minutes to allow any grit that was released when the mussels opened to settle to the bottom of the pot. Then pop the mussels into a clean pot and ladle the broth into the pot, leaving the bottom half centimetre that may contain some grit behind.

(2) As we all get more salt conscious and perhaps have less salt in our diets our taste buds are more likely to go “yuck!” if there is too much salt in a dish. Twenty years ago, this recipe would probably have suggested that you add salt. But nowadays, do not add salt to the broth until you have tasted it (actually this is something that you should apply to everything that you cook). The juices released from the mussels into the broth can be quite salty. If you still find the broth a little salty, add a raw and peeled potato to the broth and cook for a few minutes. I have no idea how it works, but the potato does take up some of the salty flavour.

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