People claim that food eaten on the beach ‘just tastes better’. Those people are usually wearing sandals made from their own hair and a tie-dyed poncho. Which means they can’t be trusted with anything more complicated than feeding and washing themselves. Which is why they usually don’t bother with either and are never invited out in public. To me, this whole food-by-the-seaside adage just makes no sense, because food eaten on the beach usually tastes of sand and other people’s suncream and possibly beach bats. And last time I checked none of those things were anything I cared to put between my lips
Yes. I have been away – you guessed it, at the beach. On holiday. Which is not something I usually do. So… let me quickly catch up on a bit of housekeeping. Firstly, happy 2010 (yes I know it’s late January, but if I don’t slip it in I can’t preserve the fresh “just got back from lengthy break” spirit that I’m trying to totally fake in this post), secondly, Happy Birthday to me (this makes me a Capricorn, but I’m still trying to establish what superpower this gives me, so far all I’ve got is snoring) and thirdly, sorry for being away from this blog for so long. I didn’t mean it.
So, I’ve always struggled with seafood. Not eating it – no, that I find incredibly easy. So much so, that if you ever happen to go to a party and there’s a guy hunched in the corner, gently stroking a garlic prawn and mumbling ‘my precioussss’ over and over again – it’s definitely me. No, it’s the cooking of it that I’ve struggled with. And I think I’m beginning to understand why. You see, meat (beef, lamb, chicken and the like…) requires work – rubbing, stuffing, herbs, marinades, braises, reductions, flame grills, stocks, slow roasts, gravies, sauces – meat likes to be shown a good time and have attention lavished on it before giving up the goods. The rather scary women who hang out on Oxford street after 10pm could possibly learn a lesson or two from a good ribeye. Seafood is an entirely different kettle of… (oh dear, that’s a terrible joke). Let’s try again: seafood will essentially give it up to anyone who so much as winks in its direction and promises to pay for a taxi in the morning. Essentially, it needs very little work – it doesn’t like being tampered with too much – a little bit of heat and the addition of one or two simple flavours and basic seasoning is enough. And I think is where I’ve always fallen down: I’ve been scared to keep things so simple – always plagued by this weird overriding feeling that there must be more to it, it can’t require this little work.
So I was determined to use my time at the coast to get over this ridiculous fishy hump I’ve been carrying around for so long. And boy did I. The discovery of an excellent fishery (www.tightline.co.za) around the corner from where we were staying pretty much meant that for the rest of the holiday I was up to my elbows in fresh calamari, sole, yellowtail, and … mussels. Oh the mussels.
I used to hate mussels. I was convinced they tasted of a tidal pool that had been left too long in the sun, and looked like something I once saw in some rather unpleasant homemade porn. Well, nothing’s going to change the fact that I’m never going to be able to watch Assbangers 5 again with a straight face, but I’ve changed my mind about the tidal pool bit. I can’t tell you what did it, but nowadays I gobble the little fuckers like salty, fishy popcorn.
Which is how I found myself on the beach one evening, cooking a heap of these delicious bivalves on a gas cooker, and oh dear if they weren’t the best I’ve ever had.
Oh crap. I better go fetch my poncho.
Fresh Mussels (generally work on half a kg per person – the sauce is quite rich and when you add all the bread you’re going to eat, it usually works out as enough)
1 handful of thinly-chopped streaky bacon (optional)
a generous pinch of thyme
2 bay leaves
1 large leek (or two smaller ones), finely chopped
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
300ml of good quality apple cider (if you use Hunters you deserve the chemical headache)
A bit of cream to finish
Salt and Pepper
A handful of basil leaves, either torn or roughly chopped
What to Do
Just a quick word on mussels – you can buy them from just about everywhere, but I’d suggest avoiding supermarkets and finding a good fishmonger to sell them to you instead. A guy who knows his business will try and get them fresh for you and will also scrub off the little beards they sometimes have. Mussels on the ‘half shell’ (already open) have usually been frozen for quite a while and although that’s fine, they usually don’t have nearly as much flavour.
You’re going to need a large wok – either on the stove-top, or on an outside grill or hot charcoal fire if you’re going to braai (barbecue for the non-South Africans).
Add a splash of olive oil and about 30g of butter into the wok (which should be nice and hot), give it a stir and when it starts to bubble and froth, chuck in the bacon (you really don’t need too much of this, and this recipe works just as well without it, some might even suggest even better…). Once its started to crisp up, add the leeks, bay leaves and thyme and then stir (it should start to smell amazing at this point). Once that’s all softened up, add the cider and mustard. Stir it vigorously and once the initial alcohol has bubbled away, add the mussels evenly so that each one has a bit of liquid to sit in. Within a couple of seconds the mussels will all have started to open up – and once they’ve all done so – I’d cook them for a further 5 to 10 minutes, turning over constantly. If a mussel hasn’t opened – throw it away, it’s usually a sign that it was dead before it got picked off the rock, which means there’s a chance it’s iffy.
Keep stirring and spooning liquid over the opened mussels, then add a splash of cream, season with salt and pepper then add the chopped basil.
Take it off the heat, gather everyone around – make sure there’s a lot of crusty bread close at hand and get going.