from "Living Within", October 2015
An Indian Summer is a good time to enjoy mussels and other bivalves; months without an “r” to their name are behind us which, convention has it, are the ones in which to avoid shellfish. Mussel season traditionally starts in September/October and finishes in March/April (although they are available in other months too). I have been enjoying some while on holiday in SW France - sourced in the North Atlantic - blue-black, easy to clean, delicious and without too many casualties to throw away.
Buy them fresh, bring them straight home and put them in the sink under cold running water. Those that are cracked or broken or will not close when rapped sharply on the side with the back of a knife get thrown away before you start. For the others, scrape off any barnacles, pull away any beards, wash them and either cook them immediately, or put them in a colander, cover with a cool damp cloth or some wetted newspaper, and keep in the bottom of the fridge until you are ready to use them later in the day. Always buy them on the day you are going to cook them - they are alive, or should be when you buy them, and they will not keep!
Mussels are easy to cook; you will need about 500g per person, a large pan with a lid, a small glass of white wine, some chopped parsley stalks, a couple of cloves of sliced garlic, and strong heat underneath them. Put the mussels in the pan with the wine, parsley and garlic, (give them a good shake about just before you and make sure they are all closed), fire up the heat under them place a lid on top of them (or some foil to trap in both heat and steam), and allow between 3 and 10 minutes for them to open in the steam that will be generated by the wine and their own juices. Timing will depend on how many mussels and how deep the pan - a single layer will cook very quickly, a large panful will need a bit of shaking from time to time and a little bit longer. There is no need for salt - they contain plenty of their own. They are cooked when they have opened fully and the flesh inside looks plump - a few may not open in amongst the rest - throw these away!
You can serve these just like this, in bowls, with fresh bread and/or a soup spoon alongside with which to mop up the juices once you have finished eating the mussel flesh (and a plate or bowl for discarding the shells of course). Alternatively, with a very small amount of extra time and patience, you can shell them and add them to the following pasta recipe - found by chance in a French magazine - that went down very well with those who helped to test it with me this week.
The pasta is the kind you would normally add to soup (or just wonder what to do with). It looks like a bit like rice but cooks like pasta and goes by many different names in different parts of the world, from Italy through North Africa and France: risetti; risoni; puntalette; orzo; langues d’oiseau (birds’ tongues) and khritaraki, just a few. In any case, whatever the name, the method is simple, and a 500g bag will serve about six people.
Get the mussels cooking. Put a big pan of water onto boil for the pasta and when it boils, skin three or four ripe tomatoes (this amount for a serving for 4-6 people) by plunging them into the water and scooping them out 30 seconds later; refresh them under cold water, peel off the skin, halve them and squeeze out as many seeds as you can - then chop into small dice. When the mussels are cooked (again 500g, or thereabouts, per person), drain, strain, and reserve their cooking juices, put on one side and add a few strands of saffron while the juices are still hot.
Next, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large shallow pan and over a medium flame (large enough to accommodate all the pasta and the mussels in due course), and add the tomatoes - add a little salt and let them bubble until they have made a sauce (5-10 minutes). Add the saffron-ed cooking liquor to the tomatoes and keep on a low heat, for a few minutes longer - don’t worry about the amount of cooking liquor, it might seem a lot, but the pasta will like it!
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water to which you have now added salt; time it for a minute less than the packet advises. Shell the mussels while the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the tomato sauce and cooking liquor, stir, taste some, see if the pasta is cooked - if not, cook for a minute longer in this liquid. Finally, stir through the mussels together with a little chopped parsley; season with some pepper (add more salt only if it needs it - taste first!). Serve immediately!