When we last talked, I had just returned from gathering my daily limit of wild California mussels (Mytilus californianus – their Latin name for our biologist readers) and we washed and readied them for cooking and preparation for the freezer. Mussels are such simple creatures that getting them ready for freezing is exactly the same as preparing them for a wonderful meal – and if you like mussels, you know just what I’m saying.
When we’re working with good ingredients, it’s often said that the best preparation is the simplest one – and with mussels, this is absolutely true. If you have a big pot half full of washed mussels (doesn’t matter if they’re from the fish market or those you just gathered as I’ve done), you’re ready to cook them. The very simplest way is to add 1 cup of water to your pot of mussels – you only need 1 cup because the mussels have their own internal juices, which they will release as they open. The more water you add, the less concentrated will be your resulting broth – it’s a matter of taste. If you want to add more water, go ahead and do it – your broth will still be delicious, just less concentrated.
If you want to add a bit of taste sophistication, replace the water above with white wine – and of course, you can also add a few chopped cloves of garlic, a bay leaf or two, or even a few slices of fresh ginger too. Let your imagination be your guide.
Now pop a lid on your pot and turn the burner on high – it’ll take a few minutes to really get steaming, but you’ll know when it does. Don’t just turn it on and walk away, this process has a way of boiling up and over – and you don’t want to come back and find most of your broth on the stove top. So, watch the pot! When it starts steaming out of the lid, check to see if those mussels on the top have opened – once they do, let them go for another minute or two – but don’t overcook them, or they’ll begin to toughen. Easy does it.
If you’ve just cooked up some Fish Market cultivated mussels, you’re ready to serve ‘em and enjoy – all you really need is a big bowl to put them in, and maybe a little pot of melted butter for each diner – oh, and a loaf of good crusty bread to soak up the broth. Oh my – one of my all time favorite meals.
If instead, you’ve cooked up some of the wild ones, as I have, it’s best that you spend a little more ‘prep time’ with them.- as you may remember from my last post, I don’t advocate spending lots of time cleaning the wild mussels – instead, I simply rinse each one as I pull them from the opened shell. I consider this a fair trade-off from not having to clean off the shells prior to cooking – Yes, this way also makes it impossible to serve those beautiful glistening black shells with the orange mussels peeking out at us – but as I say, it’s a fair trade-off.
If you want to do the ‘serve them in the shell’ routine, feel free to go through the agony of cleaning off each shell – but believe me, you’ll only do it once. Besides, even if you clean the shells of the ‘wilds’, they’ll never be as good looking as the shells of the cultivated mussel. Best to just consider it a ‘different animal’ and serve it up differently – I heat up some of the broth red hot, drop my cleaned and cooked mussels into the hot broth, and serve them up with melted butter on the side and some just baked sourdough. Still delicious.
Oh, and one more prep detail – probably half of your mussels will still have some byssus threads attached (some cultivated ones will too!) – those are the threads that hold the mussel to its place on the rocks. The mussel secrets a fluid that immediately hardens into this amazingly strong thread – science is hard at work trying to synthesize this material, but as yet, no success.
However, one thing we do know – it is not eatable – and you will need to remove it. You may simply pull it off, but most of the time, you’ll also pull out the organ of the mussel that produces this byssal thread. If you don’t mind losing part of your mussel meat, that’s the easiest way. If you want to keep that part intact, just cut it off.
Now you’re ready to do whatever you wish with your mussels. You may pack them up and slip them into the freezer. Or, of course, you may serve them up as above. But my absolute favorite way to serve my wild mussels (cultivated mussels too) is with a Thai curry. When I talk of Thai curry, this is what I’m talking about:
I’ve made hundreds of dishes with Mae Ploy curry pastes, and I’ve not had a failure yet! And if you’ve ever seen a Thai recipe for a ‘made from scratch’ curry, you’ll appreciate this short-cut convenience – for what it is, it does a magnificent job. Additionally, it’s priced so reasonably, that it’s almost ridiculous. Last year, I saw it in my local restaurant supply store in 2 lb tubs for less than $4 – that’s absurdly inexpensive – especially for a high quality convenience food. I got 1 red curry, 1 yellow, and 1 green. Yeah, they’re taking up valuable space in my fridge, but there are worse offenders in there.
For my wild mussels last week, I used the green curry paste – that one has a base of lemon grass, green chilies, shrimp paste and ginger(galangal) – and is often the choice for Thai seafood curries. I seldom use a recipe because when you use this stuff, practically all else you need is a can of coconut milk and your choice of meat or fish. Want to throw in some veggies, have at it. If you decide to use the recipe on the Mae Ploy tub, it’s even simpler.
Here’s what I did last week with my wild California mussels – it’d be equally fine with cultivated mussels as well.
Thai Green Curry Mussels with Pumpkin
(this recipe is for out-of-shell already cooked mussels)
1 ½ – 2 cups out-of-shell mussels (about 2 lbs in-shell cultivated mussels)
2 Tbs oil
2-3 chopped cloves of garlic
4-5 green onions, white only, cut into 1 inch pieces (save green part for garnish)
2 Tbs Green Thai Curry Paste (or to taste)
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs Fish Sauce
½ cup of mussel broth
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk
1 can (15 oz) sweet potatoes (Thai restaurants in the US use sweet potatoes for ‘pumpkin’) Basil leaves and minced green onion tops for garnish
This dish goes together fast – so have your ingredients ready in front of you – you don’t want the mussels cooking any more than necessary.
* Heat oil in a wok or large skillet until hot – add chopped garlic and green onions – move around pan until you can smell garlic.
* Add curry paste and stir while it thins out a bit – when you can smell the curry, add the brown sugar, Fish Sauce, mussel broth, and coconut milk – continue heating until it begins to boil.
* Now add mussels and sweet potatoes, and hear for another minute or so, until mussels are at serving temperature.
* Serve immediately over rice (or not) and garnished with basil leaves and/or minced green onion tops.
Thai curries are typically thin, and do not make thick sauces – they are served soup-like. But I like mine over rice, and I find it stretches very well. Often, the leftovers have several ‘re-incarnations’ in one guise or another, as the curry serves to host many different other leftover meats and vegetables.
Hey, are you feeling bad because you only have a big bag of good old cultivated mussels? Well, what are you planning to do with the leftovers not eaten during the party? Yeah, this will be perfect – and if you want to throw the cooked mussels in their shells right into the Thai curry – do it!
Either way, a Thai Green Curry is a great way to enjoy mussels.