Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)

Not a bad song, that. But the actual act is even better.

Especially if you haven't made them recently–or ever. I hadn't prepared mussels in years and I'd forgotten how cheap, easy and impossibly delicious they are when steamed in a boozy broth. I decided to do it because I had a few friends over to help me with the daunting task of narrowing down paint colors for the guest bedroom. You'd think it would be easy enough since I had already decided to go from an autumnal orange to a softer hue, but picking the right one is no small feat. Tangerine? Apricot? Honey mustard? The subtleties were too much to handle alone, so I called in my color experts, Sylvi and Julie. The former teaches color theory. The latter is a stylist. Hence, they are better equipped for the job at hand. My eye just can't translate that 3x3 swatch into a wall of color. I mean, I have an idea, but the risk of ending up with pastel peachiness is too horrifying a prospect. I needed their input on particulars like the ochre base to ensure a nice dirty orange result.

So anyway, I wanted to reward their patience with a nice wintry meal that was quick enough to make, but yummy enough to seem special. I opted for steamed mussels in wine broth, served with crusty bread and an incredible salad snagged from the sfgate website. I highly recommend the combo. You will love the pairing and your friends will love you for it.

Note: if you're making both dishes here, start the salad first. Only do the mussels right before assembling all the salad ingredients because that prep takes longer than this one and you'll want to eat these warm.

For the mussels, you'll need:

Mussels for the gang (figure a large handful per person)
White wine (I used a citrussy Viognier, which proved divine)
Italian parsley
Coarsely ground black pepper
Olive oil
Ice to pack them on until cooking

OK, first of all, if you can buy the mussels cleaned, it'll save you the hassle of wrestling with their little "beards". If they look mangy when you buy them, you'll have to rip that seaweedy stuff off and scrub them yourself. Obviously, if you can avoid it, it's preferable. I bought a couple pounds at Whole Foods and the fishmonger checked them all, discarding any that were open. They had also already been cleaned, so they were ready to steam. Ask the seller to pack them on ice because once these suckers warm up, they open and then you can't use them. The rule of thumb is: if it's open when you're ready to cook, toss it. If it's still closed after you've cooked it, toss it. You wanna start with them all closed tight and let them open from the steam. That's important to remember!

So once you've got them home, keep them packed on ice. I use a large shallow bowl which I fill with ice and then lay them across, in a single layer. As the ice melts, just add more or ensure they're sitting in very cold water. Then give them a good cold water rinse before starting, just in case there's any funk leftover.

OK, so for the broth, mince a couple shallots and garlic cloves. Maybe 2 shallots and 3 cloves garlic. This is an imperfect science, as all are my recipes, but you can't go wrong. If you are a garlic fiend, go crazy and add more, I don't think it's necessary, but it would be hard to ruin this dish. Now sauté the onion and garlic in a 1/2 cup of olive oil on low heat in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan (like a Le Creuset). Keep it on medium heat so everything just turns golden and translucent and doesn't burn. Once you're happy with the texture and color, add your wine. I added about 2 cups of Viognier, because it's what I was drinking at the time and it was open. Normally, I would have chosen a Sauvignon Blanc for this, but in the end, I was thrilled with the choice. The citrussy flavor of the Viognier added a sweetness to the mussel flesh that was fantastic. Of course some Viogniers are too sweet, more like dessert wines, so be sure yours is simply crisp & fruity, not cloying. Throw in a handful of Italian parsley, discarding any stemmy pieces, and add pepper to your taste. Stir it altogether and once the wine bubbles, turn to a low simmer, add your mussels and cover.

They should steam in here for between 5-10 minutes. It doesn't take long, but you want to ensure they all open, turn a nice orange color (you know, like apricot or tangerine--not peach) and absorb the steamy goodness. It's like they're having a sauna, only they're soaking the booze in, instead of sweating it out.

While these little guys are steaming, throw your crusty loaf of bread in at 350 or so to warm it through.

Serve the mussels and bread together, inviting everyone to dip big hunks of bread in the bottom of the broth bowl. The mussels are good, but the dipped bread is heaven. We ate these first, then had the salad as a sort of palatte cleanser. It was wintry, but still clean, light and refreshing so there was room for angel's food cake with raspberries. Perfection.

For the salad:

Fennel & Citrus Salad with Olives & Parmesan

(Mark Sullivan from the Village Pub in Woodside)

2 fennel bulbs
1 1/2 Meyer lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 cup premium extra virgin olive oil + more to taste
Salt, to taste
3 tangerines, skin and pith sliced off, and sliced into 1/4-inch thick wheels
2 blood oranges, segmented
2 ruby grapefruit, segmented
1/2 cup chopped mixed herbs (equal parts parsley, tarragon, chervil and chive)
1/2 cup firm green olives, pitted and halved.
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
4 ounces shaved Parmesan cheese (use potato peeler)

This salad is crazy good. I've wanted it every night since we made it. Something tells me you will, too.

To start, trim the fennel of stems and greenery. With a mandolin or knife, shave the fennel bulbs paper-thin into a bowl. Alternatively, cut the bulbs lengthwise and then lay the halves cut-side down on a cutting board. Slice crosswise, as thinly as possible.

Add the juice of the Meyer lemon and zest and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt, and set aside to marinate briefly.

In another bowl, combine the citrus fruits and herbs.

When you're ready to eat, lay out the marinated fennel on a low, wide platter, and top with the citrus fruit, olives and hazelnuts. Drizzle with more olive oil and garnish with shavings of Parmesan.


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