Mussels: camouflaging flavour with all that ugly.

A couple nights back I attempted to cook something I had never even thought of  attempting before; mussels. I’ve had them in restaurants on a couple occasions, and at other people’s houses, but had never thought of them as something I’d pursue to gorge myself on (regular readers will recall them being casually mentioned as a food I initially disliked, and grew to tolerate/enjoy to a degree).  Apparently, my stomach thought otherwise, and began sending signals to my brain, demanding mussels for sustenance.

Now, I generally try and accommodate myself when it comes to food cravings (usually just involving peanut butter or something salty, so this was somewhat more esoteric than usual), so I started going through various and sundry cookbooks to look for recipes for steamed mussels. While I came across a ton of variations (especially within Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything-a fantastic cookbook that stresses variety and simple experimentation within cooking), I was somewhat taken aback at how simple the cooking process appeared to be; I may have been branching out in terms of what kind of food I was attempting to make, but any functionally limited mule can steam some bivalves in some flavouring until their shells open.

So, with ingredients firmly in mind, the grocery store was clearly the destination to visit (well, the Saint Lawrence Market would’ve been a better choice, but I’m not likely to travel downtown and back for ingredients at the best of times, and this was long after the market would be closed. I’m sure the Danforth also possesses some killer places for fresh seafood, but I don’t know of those vendors). Getting there, I realized I hadn’t really thought of a side-dish, and began puttering around the store in some sort of blind stumble (blind panic, blind rage? Dunno, I was anything but thrilled, as I hate dumping all my effort into a single portion of a meal. I’m known to over-extend myself a lot of the time, trying to accommodate more dishes than my skills and experience allow for),  desperately wracking my brain for something vegetable oriented (starch was already covered-there would be baguette to sop up the liquid with, so pasta or rice were both no-gos).

Still grumbling about my lack of fore-sight for side-dish planning , I continued my putter over to the seafood section, and found the only mussels available came vacuum packed in 2lb bags. Not really considering why, I decided I needed two bags to feed the two of us. When back home, I realized the tremendous error of this-that’s a hell of a lot of mussels.

While I began cutting up vegetables for the salad (I acquiesced to Jess and settled for making this on the side), I had Jess cull the cracked and open mussels (a surprisingly large number. More shocking was the amount of good ones left over; Finding a bowl large enough to rinse them was initially daunting, but at least our stock pot was more than large enough to accomplish the herculean feat of containing them), and then I shooed her out of the kitchen so I could cook (I go all Marco Pierre White, and generally prefer that if I’m in charge of doing that meal, once all the sous-chefery is done, I like to work alone. I may listen to some music, generally metal, but otherwise, I just prefer quiet to help me focus).

For the mussels, I decided to do something simple for my first time, and decided to do a white wine cream sauce with shallots. It turned out to be quite effective and simple-for once, I felt the flavouring was successful in enhancing the natural characteristics of the food, rather than burying it. The mussels were cooked perfectly. My only real gripe was that even though I had balanced the flavours well, there was just enough extra white wine to thin the cream sauce a bit too much, but that’s easily remedied if I make this again.

mmmm, steamy

The salad had me attempt to make a vinaigrette for it (yes, the salad was clearly sentient, just go with it), so along with some balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, I added in some white wine, basil, and parsley, hoping they’d pair nicely with the mussels. With some shallots and a few hours to absorb some of the flavours, it may have turned out pretty nicely, but as it stands, it was light on flavour and fairly unfulfilling.

Served with the same white wine used in the cooking and salading process, it was a nice, simple meal. I must admit, the tremendous mountain of mussels soon proved off putting though; after a pound or so of them, they were beginning to cool, and if you actually look at the damn things, they’re ridiculously revolting. Texturally, they’re pleasant, and taste nothing like you’d expect, but they’re not about to win any beauty pageants. I eventually decided I’d had my fill, before my stomach decided the same. I then had salad, and lots of baguette to sop up the wonderful mussel soup.

I’ll probably attempt another [smaller] batch of mussels at some point, but I feel my craving has been satiated for a good while.


4 Responses to “Mussels: camouflaging flavour with all that ugly.”

  1. You are lcky I’m still with you after that shopping trip, and I made the dressing very nice by adding more salt, some pesto, and mustard. It was very yum and you should try the leftovers one of these days

  2. keirensmith Says:

    Did you see the Corey Mintz (sp?) article in the Toronto Star? Apparently, he was similarly inspired to cook up a batch of mussels (said he, “a football helmet-sized bowl”).

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