Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our favorite way to cook mussels

My darling wife Vicki thought my most recent entry (just below) got a tad too strident. We both feel very strongly about our personal food supply and how big business is making decisions that may not be in our best interests. Be that as it may, we want A Man for All Seasonings to be a friendly welcoming place where people can gather and talk about food.

With all that in mind, and because it’s another beautiful spring day here in Toronto, I decided to talk about our favorite bivalve recipe: grilled mussels, or more correctly, moules à la Catalane. We’re having a guest for lunch today and thought this would be the perfect way to inaugurate our cooking outside season.

We found this recipe in one of our favorite cookbooks, Lulu’s Provençal Table (more info under our listing of Favorite Cookbooks in the right-hand column). Lulu’s family owns Domaine Tempier (Vicki jokingly calls it “Domaine Tant Pis”), a winery in Provence, and as this cookbook she wrote with Richard Olney proves, she is a fantastic cook. Her mussel recipe is our favorite from the book. We make it several times every year as long as the weather is good and we can cook outside. That is a must for this recipe. Cooked indoors, this dish is a pale shadow of itself. You need that wood smoke added to the flavor.

Over the years, we’ve taken our show on the road to various friends’ places, cooking in fields, driveways, anyplace we can find a bare spot to lay our fire. At home, we have a fire pit for all our outdoor cooking (more on that some other time), so it’s even easier.

Now that it’s spring, if you grow grapes or fruit trees, they’re going to need pruning. We save all our trimmings, bundling them and seasoning them for a year, so they’re nice and dry. The past few years, I’ve also been driving around our (very Italian) neighborhood the nights before the garbage is collected and whisking off any grapevine clippings I find to bolster our stores. Moules à la Catalane are best cooked on grape trimmings if you can get your hands on any, but it works with even twigs gathered in a forest. Regardless of what you use for your fire, make sure it’s dry.

We’ve found that the perfect wine to accompany this is Lulu’s own rosé from Domaine Tempier. It’s not available in Canada, but we’ve bought some in the States. For a secondary choice, pick another French rosé, one that’s fairly dry and fruity.

We guarantee that once you’ve tasted these little "flavor bombs", you will realize just how special they are. We have never served them to anyone who hasn’t been blown away by them.

Grilled Mussels (Moules à la Catalane)

Serves 4

We enjoy this feast with a chilled, crisp rosé, a tossed green salad and a nice loaf of crusty bread to sop up the “sauce” from your plate.

(Hint: Use bent coat hangers to lift the grill on and off the fire. Guests can serve themselves right off the grill. Pocket knives seems to work best for opening the mussels.)

This is an absolutely fantastic meal on a summer evening. The shucking of the 
mussels takes a bit of time, especially when you’re learning how to do it, but it’s all very worth it in the end. Your guests will not believe how fast this cooks. They also will not believe how fantastic it tastes!

18-24 fresh mussels per person
olive oil (the best quality only!)
pepper (freshly ground)

1. To clean the mussels, soak them in cold water to which a handful of coarse sea salt has been added. Scrape them, if necessary, or simply rub them beneath the water. Discard any that are open and stay that way even if you tap your finger on the shell. (You can also use the smell test: if you open one and it doesn’t have that sweet tang of the sea, view it with a jaundiced eye.) Pull out the beards. To open a mussel, force the two shells in opposite directions between thumb and forefinger and slip a thin knife blade between the shells, starting at the top and sliding down. When it touches the mussel, the shell will open out. With a knife tip, loosen the flesh from one half shell and fold it into the other. Twist the empty shell free and discard. As they are ready, arrange the mussel-filled half shells in rows, on a grill. (You can use the one on your barbecue. We use square, metal cake racks since our fire pit is fairly small).

2. Drizzle a few drops of olive oil (we use an eye dropper for more precision) and a grinding of pepper over each mussel.

3. Make a small bonfire of, preferably, dry grape trimmings in a bare area. (If you don’t have grape trimmings, dry twigs will work, but keep the pieces small in diameter.) This will be a fast, hot fire! When the flames die down a bit, spread the twigs out enough to create a flattened surface on which to place the grill.

4. Place the grill directly on the bed of hot coals. They are done when the mussels contract, releasing liquid that begins to boil almost immediately, combining with the olive oil to form an exquisite little sauce. Remove the grill from the coals before the mussels’ liquid has completely evaporated. It probably won’t take more than about a minute. Serve immediately!

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

I've had a few comments about whether these could be made on a grill over charcoal or a gas grill – or even in the oven. The quick answer is, sure. But you're going to miss the best part of the flavor of this really great recipe. By laying the mussels directly on the wood, a bit of ash (not visably noticeable) and certainly the wood smoke will add immeasurably to flavor. As experiments, we've tried making these in the above listed alternate ways, and the results were uniformly disappointing.

Look, the truth is, you can do these anywhere. We even did them once on a brick walkway at someone's place (we did promise to wash the bricks afterwards). Everyone can find enough dry twigs to do this. It doesn't take much. Grape works the best, but fruit wood seems to work nearly as well. Have an apple tree? You'll need to prune it, won't you? Just save the twigs, dry them for a year, and they will work just great. We have a few old garbage cans where we keep them.

Try it the way I suggest and I think you'll be more than satisfied with the results!