Many prefer eating mussels at a restaurant instead of preparing them at home. For them, the idea of cooking a pot of mussels at home is like a gruesome fairytale without an happy end. Rumors gone wild about upset stomachs and a lot of people are dismayingly clueless when it comes to shopping, washing and preparing mussels. And yes, there are amazing places in Cape Town, serving an excellent pot of mussels, Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay is one of them. But, there’s still much to be said for cooking mussels at home. It’s much easier than most assume, very affordable, on the green SASSI list and a lovely social dish to be served on a dinner table. Mussels are not only fun to prepare, they are also fun to eat! Ever sucked a mussel directly out of the shell and drank the juice? It`s just one big delicious slurpy, munchy and messy endeavor! A great dish for a communal dinner.
Moules Marinière, originally a classic European dish, originated in Belgium and owes its fame to a “flea-market-event”, called Braderie in the French city Lille. Each year, on every first September weekend, crowds of people come and visit the Braderie and wander through the streets checking out the antiques, vintage clothing and other goods sold by over 10.000 vendors. The legendary seafood dish is the most popular specialty eaten in huge amounts at the happening each year, and a couple of restaurants participate in a legendary contest to see who is able to pile up the highest mountain of empty mussel shells in front of the restaurants doors.
I love dishing up a big pot of mussels steamed in white wine for a dinner at home and just place the pot in the middle of the table, dish out for everyone with a ladle and serve it with a slice of sourdough or baguette. Mussels make every dinner delightfully interactive. All you need is a good recipe. Everybody can do it and today, I will give you my recipe in three simple steps and hopefully eliminate some concerns regarding a dish, which I believe is unjustifiably feared by many home cooks.
Ingredients (serves 4)
grass-fed butter 1T
finely chopped onions, 1,5
chopped garlic 3 cloves
celery 3 sticks
roughly chopped fresh parsley 1 bunch
roughly chopped coriander 1 bunch
fresh lemon juice 2T
sea salt 1,5t
chopped fennel bulb 2
1. Wash and pick out
How to buy and store mussels
First and foremost: Always buy mussels fresh from the ocean. The ones below are from Fish4Africa in Woodstock, Cape Town. It is crucial that the mussels are still alive shortly before you cook them because they can become unpalatable or even poisonous very quickly after dying. It’s nothing to freak out about, just bear it in mind and follow my steps below. The sooner you eat them after you bought them, the better. Hence I suggest that if you’d like to serve them for dinner, buy them in the morning. You can keep them in the fridge so long, in a bowl covered with a clean and wet kitchen towel without a problem.
How to wash mussels
Before you start washing them, pick out the ones, which are tightly closed. The ones, which are slightly open are not necessarily dead, simply tap them and see if they close up, which means they are alive and safe to use. Disregard the open ones and the ones who don’t move and don’t close up when you tap them. Also, disregard all, which have broken or cracked shells. Some say, you can still use them, but I don’t.
Mussels generally open up once cooked. Some recommend that you throw the ones away, which didn´t open up after cooking. However, just because the didn’t open, doesn’t mean they are off. It sometimes simply means they have a very hard shell. I suggest you pick them out, open them with a knife. You’ll definitely smell if they are off or not.
2 kg of mussels shouldn’t have more than a handful of mussels that you have to sort out, otherwise there´s something wrong and they are most likely either not fresh or have been stored incorrectly.
Before you cook mussels you need to wash them in fresh cold water, scrub them thoroughly with a nailbrush and remove the beards, which are sticking out from the side, by pulling down toward the hinge of the shell and outward.
2. Chop your Soffritto
Soffritto is Italian and basically means to brown or fry lightly, although there’s much more behind it. It is the brilliant idea of creating a beautifully harmonious symphony of basic flavors by combining three simple ingredients. The magic happens once you mix the ingredients and brown them in either butter or olive oil, traditionally carrots, onion and celery. I like to use finely chopped fennel instead of carrots, to give it a mild and slightly sweet licorice flavor.
3. Shake the pot
Start by braising the finely chopped onions, fennel and celery in either grass fed butter or some coconut oil. Once your Soffritto is soft, increase the heat to max, add mussels and garlic and quickly stir once or twice. Now add 2 glasses of good quality dry white wine, chopped parsley and coriander, close the lid and shake pot slightly just like in the picture below.