Mussel memories make for moreish magic on the menu
MUSSELS are not only a versatile and flavoursome seafood, but they are often far better priced than other shellfish, putting them among the more affordable seafood options.
I enjoy cooking with mussels as there is so much you can do to transform them and enhance their fleshy goodness – and they are equally good as a starter or main course.
They especially take me back to my childhood when just about every weekend was spent gathering oysters and mussels at Beachview with my late father, eating the oysters on the rocks with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and a dash of Tabasco, then roasting the mussels on the braai fire until just opened.
Fresh is of course always best but in my experience there is absolutely nothing with the frozen ones you get in the half shell nowadays – just look for a reputable brand and buy from someone whose cold chain you trust!
Make sure you thaw them in the fridge, then clean carefully so no beards or shell chips remain.
Here are three of my favourite recipes using mussels.
MUSSELS WITH VERJUICE AND ASPARAGUS
Serves 2 as a main course or four as starter
500g mussels in half shell – defrosted and liquor reserved – about 34 mussels
1 punnet thin asparagus spears – washed well and drained, then sliced diagonally
salt and pepper
Olive oil for grilling
For the sauce:
1 red onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil for frying
¼ cup of the reserved mussel liquid or "liquor"
¼ cup of verjuice (this liquid, a byproduct of the wine making industry, is available bottled from stores like Woolworths)
Few sprigs of fresh thyme
½ cup double thick cream
Salt and pepper
Place the asparagus in a roasting dish with olive oil, toss and season.
Grill in the oven till cooked, tossing regularly, for about 6 minutes or until the asparagus are still slightly crunchy and still have an intense green colour.
While the asparagus is grilling you can make the sauce for the mussels on the stove top.
Fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil till soft. Season with salt and pepper, then pump up the heat and add the Verjuice and the mussel liquor, along with the thyme.
Reduce till bit thicker, simmering briskly for about 2 minutes, then turn down the heat quite a bit and add the cream.
Once you've stirred in the cream, place the mussels on top, flesh side down, and cook uncovered for about 4 minutes. They really don't need any longer.
Mix through gently then serve immediately with the asparagus layered in between.
MUSSELS WITH FENNEL AND WHITE WINE
Serves 2 as a main course
250g mussels in the half shell, thawed
3 Tbsp butter
1 medium-sized red onion, finely chopped
Fennel 2 medium-sized bulbs
Salt and pepper
¼ cup reserved mussel "liquor"
125ml dry white wine
2 Tbsp thick cream or cream freche
Heat the butter in a large frying pan; add the onions and fennel (not the fronds). Season, then stir-fry for about 5 minutes (the fennel must still have a bit of crunchiness).
As soon as the onions are soft but not browned add the mussel "liquor" and white wine, then pump up the heat so the alcohol taste can evaporate.
Turn down the heat, stir in the cream, then layer the mussels flesh side down on top of the mixture.
Cook uncovered for about 4 minutes on medium low heat.
Dish up, decorate with fennel fronds (best give these a bit of a chop) and serve immediately.
GARLICKY GRILLED MUSSELS
Serves 2 as a starter
250g mussels in the half shell (about 16)
About 65g butter
About 30g flour
2 fat cloves of garlic
¼ teaspoon chilli flakes
2 teaspoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
½ cup grated parmesan
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan over low to medium heat. Add the crushed garlic and chilli flakes and stir until the garlic is just cooked, not browned.
Now stir in the flour with a wooden spoon till completely integrated.
Add the milk bit by bit, stirring thoroughly after each edition to prevent lumps forming. If there are any lumps use a whisk to smoothen the sauce.
Season to taste, add parsley, then let it cool somewhat.
Cover each mussel in its half shell with a dollop of sauce; smooth over. Spread out on a roasting tray.
Sprinkle with parmesan and pop under the grill for about 5 or 6 minutes, until golden and bubbly, keeping a close eye on them so they don't burn.