Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chilli Mussels

Prior to my current employment in international espionage, I spent years working in hospitality. The objective standard by which a workplace was judged was dictated by one thing: the quality of staff meals. There is nothing worse than slogging out a twelve hour shift, fuelled only by strong macchiato and cigarettes (or in my case raspberry liquorice) with Birkenstocks gnawing at your heels, only to be greeted at the end of the evening by a plate of sloppy gruel, crowned by a few slivers of depressed looking rocket. Especially if to add insult to injury, you have spent said shift resplendent in a bright orange polo shirt. I digress.

I was fortunate to spend the last three years of my hospitality career working for a wonderful couple at the ‘brewery tap’ of a microbrewery in my native Swan Valley. While my week days were spent studying sea-side in the port city of Fremantle, by weekend I escaped home inland to the brewery, nestled amongst Western Australia’s oldest family wineries. My favourite moment of the week, and one I long for to this day, was on a Sunday evening, after the hordes of tourists had dissipated, sitting on the verandah of the brewery, overlooking the vines, a glass of German Red beer in hand waiting on my ‘staff meal’: Chilli Mussels. One chef in particular, long gone now, made the most amazing sauce, an unctuous tomatoey puree which I have never been able to replicate, despite having the ‘recipe’ - a typical cheffy approximation of a pinch of this and a dash of that, hastily dictated by the chef as he scrawled out the dry store order list. Below is my closest attempt, the product of much trial and error.

The key to these mussels is freshness. Any whiff of stale ‘fishiness’ ruins the meatiness of the dish, which it needs to carry the warmth of the chilli. Near Mr 9BR’s village in Sligo is a beach with partially submerged rocks clustered with mussels. A fresh dinner of mussels can be yours in exchange for a pair of wellies, a copy of Old Moore’s Almanac and an hour or two scraping barnacles off the shells (a job I prefer to outsource).

2 kg mussels, scrubbed, de-barnacled and de-bearded.
600mL jar of passatta or two cans of chopped plum tomatoes in juice
Glass of white wine
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 large sticks of celery, finely sliced
Small bulb of fennel, shaved finely into slices
Medium brown onion, finely diced
One medium fresh chopped red chilli or a half teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
Half a lemon
Handful of parsley, roughly chopped
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Heat a glug of olive oil in the bottom of a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, and add the garlic, fennel, celery and onion and stir occasionally until softened.

Add tomato, wine and chilli and reduce heat to a simmer, allowing to bubble gently for an hour or so until thick. The fennel and onion will have dissolved slightly.

Season to taste with pepper, salt and lemon juice.

In a separate frying pan, place mussels in a single layer, hinge down. Turn heat to high and cover with lid. Steam for a minute or so until all shells open. Discard those that do not open. Drain any liquid off the mussels and stir sauce through the mussels.

Serve in warmed bowls with lemon wedges, sprinkled in parsley with a malted lager on the side.


kate said...

Sounds like a simple, elegant and delicious recipe. Your blog has given me motivation to step out of my foodie comfort zone and try some new dishes.

'NEEN at 9 BEAN ROW said...

Thanks Kate, they really are the easiest dinner ever!

Another great version is some sliced shallots, generous glug of white wine (I keep tail ends of bottles for just these occassions) and a bit of butter in the bottom of the pan, allow butter to melt slightly and then throw in the mussels. Cover and steam for three or four minutes and serve in a bowl sprinkled in loads of parsley with crusty white bread.

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