Monday, August 11, 2008

Sexy Shapely Mussels

If only I were referring here to my muscles, which, thanks to all the rainy summer days spent concocting in the kitchen instead of at the gym, could instead perhaps be referred to kindly as soft and supple. But I am here to talk about the shellfish anyway.

It has been a couple of years since I last enjoyed a sexy, slurpy dish of mussels. Or, let me rephrase: I enjoyed the first half of the dish. When midway through I encountered an interloper staring back at me from the interior of one of the deep plum-black shells, I did something I so rarely do: pushed the dish towards the outer edge of the table and laid the napkin from my lap in place of the dish signaling the end of my appetite. A tiny eel, its mouth open as though calling for help in the last moments of its life, was the surprise guest in my dish of mussels. I suppose I could have gotten over my horror, set the little fella aside, taken another slice of chewy baguette and finished up the dish, but I simply could not get around the active position the cooking process had frozen this little eel into. I'd at first wanted to believe it was a tiny rubber snake someone had dropped into my dish for fun. Let me just add that the wait staff was more amused than I was and I haven't returned to the restaurant in the two years since. More about that some other time.

Back to how I love mussels. How a 4 lb netting bag clattering like castanets and carrying with it a fresh salty sea-breeze can trigger vivid olfactory memories of fishing villages of the East Coast. Clambakes and lobster shacks and brightly painted fishing boats manned by salty fisherman... When I decided recently it was time to put my bad restaurant experience aside and do them up right myself, one whiff took my heart and my appetite to the right place– the seaside.

Perhaps because the edible nugget of flesh is a mystery, concealed as it is within its shell, many home cooks fear there is some kind of trick to steaming shellfish. Perhaps I should keep my own trap shut and not reveal the truth: it's as simple as opening a bottle of wine and ready to enjoy faster than you can finish drinking your first glass. Really– a few minced shallots, onion, garlic or leeks sauteed in butter and/or olive oil, herbs and spices of choice, and a bottle of beer or a few cups of wine along with perhaps some diced tomatoes. That'll do. Simmer those together in a large pot for a few minutes, then throw in the cleaned mussels (discarding those with open shells). Cover to steam for about 5 minutes or until the shells open. Garnish with more chopped herbs and a big wedge of lemon on each plate. Once you have a basic formula to work from, fiddle with the variables. In my case, I had no wine handy (horrors!) but I did have sherry, so I worked from this recipe found at Epicurious:
Mussels with Sherry, Saffron and Paprika

The process of eating mussels is so deliciously hands-on. Some find the shells too fussy and want the messy work of shelling done for them. Then there are those who, like me, just love to get in there using an emptied open shell as tongs with which to pluck the plump tender meat from each remaining shell. I am content to bathe in the salty sea of shells, licking the broth that drips from my fingers, and with chunks of crusty bread sopping up every last drop of ocean-scented tidepool from my plate.

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