My family has a new dinnertime game called, Two Truths and a Lie. It’s a fun way to wrestle from your children (and even a tired spouse) some information about their day. The rules: share two true facts about your day with one made-up incident thrown in. Everyone takes a guess at which statement is the lie, learning about your recent experiences in the process. The closer the fallacy is to the reality, the greater the challenge. My turn on Sunday night went something like this…
This weekend, I:
* drove six sporting event carpools.
* wore some new Fall clothes.
* took Hoover to the Dog Park.
Well, with the temperature reaching 88F in Washington, DC this weekend, it’s no surprise that the fall clothes remained in my closet as I shuttled between soccer, hockey, lacrosse and the dog park. Are you ready to play?
Here’s one about mussels:
* They can only be prepared by a restaurant chef.
* They are intimidating.
* They’re perfect for making at home.
If you guessed that the first statement is the lie, DING, DING, DING you are correct. Mussels are intimidating but shouldn’t be because they are easy to prepare at home. Mussels are inexpensive ($3.99/lb.) while feeling like a “treat,” they cook quickly and can be prepared in a wide variety of ways. When paired with a salad and plenty of crusty bread, they make as nice of a weeknight supper as they do an elegant dinner party. They can also be a great first course to a more formal meal. A big pot of one variety is great, a second pot of another is even better.
This weekend I hosted a Belgian themed dinner party where mussels were the first course. Out of the many options–from white wine to coconut curry–I chose to serve one pot with a spicy tomato sauce and another with leeks and cream. These two preparations proved to be entirely different yet equally tasty when sopped up with slices of baguette. And before even picking up the mussels from the store (which can be done a day ahead but I did several hours prior to serving, the same time I did my ice run), I made both of my sauces. They sat covered on the stove, waiting to be reheated before tossing in the mussels to cook. All the work was done before my guests arrived, leaving just the finishing touches to complete before sitting at the table.
I think that the intimidation factor is related to the handling of these live mollusks which should be stored in a bowl or open plastic bag in the refrigerator. Prior to cooking, place them in a bowl of cold water and individually inspect each mussel, discarding any that are cracked or already opened (if they don’t close tightly when tapped against the counter). If you notice a “beard” on any of them (for lack of a better description, it’s a Brillo pad-like protrusion) pull it off. After the inspection process, transfer the mussels to a second bowl of clean cold water, dump the original bowl and stir them around again. Basically, you want to remove any grit from the shells so repeat this step until the water at the bottom of your bowl appears to be clean. Then put the mussels back in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook them.
As I mentioned, for both pots of mussels that I prepared, I completed all of the steps prior to “adding the mussels to the pot” earlier in the day. When I was ready to complete the recipe and serve I just brought each sauce back up to a simmer. The thing that I have learned after several mussel meals is that the cooking time is really just an estimation that depends on the temperature of your sauce, the seal of your pot and maybe even the particular batch of mussels. You don’t want to overcook them but you also don’t want to be prying open the shells. So when you expect them to be done, open the lid and take a look. The vast majority of the shells should be wide open and the few that remain closed should be tossed. I took the photo of my tomato preparation too early and had to put the pot back on the stove for around five minutes. Not a disaster but a closer look would have enabled me to get it right the first time.
Be brave and use these recipes as a jumping off point for your own mussel exploration. Remember, mussels aren’t just for restaurants anymore.
- 3 lbs mussels, cleaned and inspected as described above
- 4 medium or 3 large leeks, white and light green parts only
- 2 Tbls neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 Tbls chopped fresh thyme or 1 1/2 tsp dried
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 Tbls tomato paste
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 baguette
- Trim the leeks of and roots and tough green tops. Slice them lengthwise down the middle and run under cold water to ensure any sand is rinsed from their layers. Pat the leeks dry and cut into 1/4-inch thick half-moons.
- In a large stockpot with a lid, heat the oil on medium-high heat. Add the chopped leeks and let cook until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and let cook for another minute, stirring occasionally.
- Pour in the wine and stir the tomato paste into the mixture until thoroughly combined. You can turn off the heat at this point and bring back to a sizzle just before serving, or continue.
- Dump in the cleaned mussels, put the lid on the pot and let cook for 10 minutes. Check on them after 10 minutes and if a lot of the shells are still closed, let them steam for a couple of minutes more.
- Remove the lid and stir in the cream. Discard any shells that haven't opened. Season with salt and pepper and gently pour mussels and sauce into a large bowl or just serve straight from the pot. Be sure to pass slices of crusty bread to mop up the sauce. Enjoy!
- 3 lbs of mussels, cleaned and inspected as described above
- 1/4 c olive oil
- 16 cloves garlic, sliced
- 2 pints grape tomatoes, halved
- 28 oz can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp crushed red pepper, can adjust to temper spice level
- 1 1/2 c dry white wine
- 2 c fresh basil, shredded
- sea salt, to taste
- 1 baguette
- Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot with a lid over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until golden, being careful not to burn. Add the grape tomatoes and saute until soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano and red pepper flakes. Cook for 5 minutes and then add the wine. Bring sauce to a boil and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes. Taste to adjust seasoning, if desired. You can turn off the heat at this point and return to a simmer just before serving, or continue.
- Raise sauce to a boil and add mussels. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Check on them after 10 minutes and if a lot of the shells are still closed, let them steam for a couple of minutes more.
- Remove the lid, stir in the basil. Discard any shells that haven't opened and gently pour mussels and sauce into a large bowl or just serve straight from the pot. Be sure to pass slices of crusty bread to mop up the sauce. Enjoy!