We are blessed with local mussels in Melbourne. One of our best local seafoods is only an hour from the city. I like to cook mussels at home, usually served hot, straight from the pot plonked onto the middle of the table. With a slice of grilled or toasted bread on each plate and topped with a spoon of aioli, the mussels and broth are then ladled over the bread.
If I am in more of a hurry and have the barbecue on, I like to put them on the barbecue with the lid down and cook them until they pop open. This also works well with oysters. Usually, though, the best results come from them being simply steamed until they open in a lidded pan with a splash of white wine. Any concoction of flavours can be added to the pot. Beer, bay and smoked bacon is an old favourite. Chilli and garlic are welcome, as are most Asian flavours, along with coconut cream and lime.
Cleaning mussels is a cinch and it takes only a few minutes to pull the beard from the side of each mussel. If your mussels have excessive seaweed and barnacles, a quick scrub with some steel wool will move any clingers-on. These days, though, most of the barnacles are removed during the packing process.
I have a particular fondness for pickled mussels. To serve as a snack, steam open the mussels and remove from the shell, reserving the liquor for another use. Mix together one cup of vinegar with 100 grams of sugar and 150 millilitres of water. Whisk the ingredients together before adding the mussels, and leave for a few hours. This is a seriously good snack.
Whenever I cook mussels, there is usually plenty of excess juice. Mussel liquor is something of a gift in the kitchen and should never be discarded. Often too intense to all be used in one dish, it is salty and full of umami. This liquor is a great way to build flavour in a tomato-based sauce for pasta. I have also used it to quickly stew vegetables, and it works particularly well with fennel.
Turkish food would have to be one of my favourite cuisines. Spending time in Turkey a few years ago, I was enamoured by the food culture. My favourite way to eat there, and now back in Melbourne, is meze. This is usually half-a-dozen small dishes of food that have been prepared earlier and marinated at room temperature for a few hours. The dishes are often vegetable-based or a salad. Seafood is also served this way, similar to the mussel recipe on this page. Sardines, bonito and mackerel were marinated in vinegar and spices and refrigerated until served.
I have taken this recipe and used it as a sort of snack on a crouton. I also had half a cup of the marinated mussels left over when I previously cooked this dish, and used it as a base for a pasta sauce the next day.
– 2kg raw mussels
– 2 large onions, finely diced
– 200ml olive oil
– 2 carrots, finely diced
– 3 large sticks celery, finely diced
– 3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
– 3 tomatoes, skinned and chopped
– 1 tbsp castor sugar
– 2 tbsp tomato paste
– ½ bunch parsley, leaves picked and chopped
– 1 long red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
– 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– ½ lemon juiced
– aioli (recipe below)
Rinse the mussels and give the shells a scrub if necessary. Heat a large, wide saucepan over high heat, add the mussels and one cup of water and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
After a minute, check the mussels. Take out any that have opened, give the pot a stir, replace the lid and leave for another minute. Repeat until all the mussels are open and drain them immediately, straining and reserving the cooking liquid.
Remove the mussels from their shells and pinch out the wiry “beards”. Discard the shells and set the mussels aside.
Fry the onions in olive oil, reserving three tablespoons, until soft and golden. Add the diced carrot and continue to fry for another two minutes, then add the celery, garlic, tomatoes, sugar and tomato paste. Stir in half a cup of the reserved mussel liquid and simmer the sauce very gently until the vegetables are well cooked and the sauce is rich and thickened (about half an hour). Add the parsley and chilli to the sauce and remove it from the heat.
Tip the sauce into a mixing bowl and add the mussels. Stir through three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon juice and about two tablespoons of the reserved mussel liquid.
Check the seasoning – the juice from the mussels should provide enough salt, but add some if necessary.
Serve the mussels at room temperature with croutons and aioli.
– 2 cloves Australian garlic, peeled
– 2 egg yolks
– 2 tsp Dijon mustard
– 1½ tsp lemon juice
– 1¼ tsp Pernod
– 1½ tsp white wine vinegar
– 180ml grapeseed oil
– 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– salt and white pepper
With a mortar and pestle crush the garlic with a good pinch of salt, pounding the cloves to a fine paste.
Transfer the garlic paste, egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, Pernod and vinegar to an electric mixer with the whisk attachment fitted. Whisking continuously, slowly add the oils to the egg yolk mixture until the aioli is thick and emulsified.
Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
2016 Pooley gewürztraminer, Coal River and Tamar Valley ($36) – Mark Williamson, wine buyer for Cumulus Inc, Cumulus Up and the Builders Arms Hotel
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Mussels plaki". Subscribe here.