Thanks so much to all my you who tirelessly nominated, voted for, and supported me in the SA Blog Awards 2010. The results were announced over the weekend and I am pleased to announce that I was placed second in both the Best Food & Wine and Best Overseas Blog categories.
Riddle me this:
I have a foot but I have no legs.
I carry my home on my back.
I cannot swim but I love the sea.
I’m black on the outside but orange on the inside.
What am I?
Well, it’s a bit obvious when you have the picture staring you in the face I guess: I’m a mussel!
Mussels are molluscs and are in fact members of the clam family but tend to be have more asymmetrically shaped shells. They are called bivalves, denoting the two halves of the shell that can open and close on a hinge to allow the mussel to move and feed. Although some of them are adapted to survive in deep water thermal vents, they are found in greatest abundance all over the world in temperate intertidal zones where they cling to rocks. This makes them relatively easy pickings for human (and other) predators and they are consumed enthusiastically all over the world. They are both cheaper and easier to open than oysters, making them an affordable shellfish treat.
I first ate mussels that I had harvested off the rocks myself as a student (what student does not like free food??). Their sweet flesh, cooked on the half shell over an open fire on the beach, was a revelation to me and I have been an enthusiastic consumer ever since.
The hardest part of preparing mussels is getting them off the rocks in the first place. For a start, they live inconveniently in the intertidal zone, meaning they are only properly exposed at low tide. Even then, they are often in places that are prone to waves that can sweep the unsuspecting mussel-hunter into the water. Apart from that little issue, the mussels are also quite good at attaching themselves to the rocks and not that keen to leave, so you will have to take along a screwdriver or something similar to prise them off.
Once you get your haul home, then the tedious part starts: the cleaning. Sort through the mussels and discard any that have open or broken shells as this is a one-way ticket to food poisoning. (Healthy mussels clamp their shells shut when disturbed, so open shells mean dead or dying mussels.) Rinse the mussels a few times in cold water to get rid of any sand. Then, using pliers or fingers (if you are tough!), rip off the beard (a collection of hairy threads near the shell hinge that the mussel uses to move). Using a hard brush, brush the shells vigorously to remove any algae or remaining sand. Rinse again. You are now ready to cook them by steaming in the cooking liquid of your choice, for about 5 minutes. By then, all the shells should have opened to reveal the flesh. Discard any shells that have not opened as these are dead (see above – food poisoning alert!).
A few months ago, a friend of ours called to say he was on his way back from Norfolk and wanted to stop by our house for coffee. Although we are always pleased to see him, we were particularly pleased when he walked through the door carrying a 2kg bag of mussels, fresh from Norfolk! Usually I’d make the classic moules mariniere, but this time I thought I’d try something different – green Thai curry mussels. There is just something about the flavours of green Thai curry that matches the sweet mussel flesh perfectly, making a fragrant and satisfying dish. I think I have found my new favourite way to prepare mussels… See what you think!
FRAGRANT THAI GREEN CURRY MUSSELS (serves 2 very hungry people)
2 kg fresh mussels, prepared as described above
6 shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil
2 Tbsp Thai green curry paste
stick of lemongrass
2 tsp fish sauce
1 x 410g tin of light coconut milk
1 fresh green chille, chopped (optional)
Heat the butter and oil in your largest pot. Add the shallots and gently sauté until translucent. Stir in the curry paste, fish sauce and coconut milk and add the lemongrass. Stir until starting to bubble. Add the mussels, simmer over low heat with the lid on for about 5 minutes, until all the shells are open.
Serve garnished with the chopped fresh chilli on jasmine rice to soak up the delicious broth.