It wasn't until I went away to college and stayed with a friend's family in Baltimore that I finally started to enjoy crab. It was then that I eased into crab via crab cakes, bound with breadcrumbs, eggs, vegetables, and dipped in savory sauce. At home, we always ate fresh dungeness crab straight from Puget Sound with little more than a bit of mayonnaise or lemon juice, and as a child, I neither enjoyed nor appreciated such bounty from the sea. After a few good experiences wtih some Old Bay crab cakes as a young adult, I was ready to venture back toward plain crab and could truly savor it.
From there, I crept next toward oysters in my early 20's, which my dad would buy (or, on a good day, dig up himself) when we would vacation at Wescott Bay in the San Juan Islands. He would place them whole and fresh on the barbeque until they steamed open, then pry off the top shell, add a spoonful of cocktail sauce and we'd eat them straight from the grill.
Somehow, I don't remember when, I approached mussels - perhaps because they are similar in shape to oysters. Even as I gradually added these various shellfish to my repetoire of consumables, I hadn't come around to preparing them myself. What spurred me on was a craving for some good artisan bread, and a desire for some tasty, buttery sauce to dip it in. What better way to render a delicious dipping broth than to steam some mussels!
Joy of Cooking, Junior League of Seattle's Simply Classic, and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking all have solid recipes for mussels. I found Julia particularly helpful when she said to "set the mussels in a bucket of fresh water for an hour or two so they will disgorge their sand and also lose a bit of their saltiness... Some cooks add flour to the soaking water on the theory thta while the mussles eat the flour and become fatter and more succulent, they are at the same time disgorging their sand more thoroughly." It was good to know I needed to start my recipe a couple of hours in advance to allow time for this step! However, when I asked my fishmonger about it, she had never heard of such a thing (don't worry Julia, I didn't quote my source). She said that our Penn Cove mussels are cultivated on ropes and aren't exposed to hardly any sand, and that soaking in fresh water will suffocate them. She recommended simply leaving them in the fridge under a loose damp towel, which is what I did. I also hadn't realized that the mussels die shortly after being debearded, so even though that is a crucial step in washing and preparing them for cooking, it can't really be done in advance or they will not be fresh.
Because I wanted to try a step deeper than standard moules a la mariniere (mussels in wine and herbs), and because I also had a pint of grape tomatoes starting toward shriveling, I decided on Bon Appetit's recipe for Mussels with Tomatoes and Anise. It was fantastic and I will absolutely make it again, especially because I was able to make a second gourmet-esque meal from the leftovers (I know - sounds sketchy: leftover mussels? But it was delicious.) I made a few modifications, so my version is below.
3-4 roma tomatoes (I used about 8 ounces grape tomatoes, which were delicious, but a lot of work to peel, which is why I'll try romas next time)
just enough olive oil to coat
1 spring rosemary
two large cloves garlic, tightly wrapped in foil
2 teaspoons balsamic
This only makes 1/2 cup of sauce, which is what the mussels recipe calls for, so I used a 9x5" loaf pan on the convection setting of my toaster oven. Coat the pan lightly with oil, place the rosemary spring in the bottom of the pan. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise, and lay cut side down on top of the rosemary. Brush tops of tomatoes with a little more oil. Roast at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until soft, but before juices start to burn or evaporate. Put the foil-wrapped garlic in the oven at the same time - it takes about 25 minutes as well.
Splash the balsamic vinegar in the pan as soon as it comes out of the oven and stir around to loosen any burnt tomato juices. Allow to cool and then pull skins off tomatoes and remove the rosemary spring. Unwrap the garlic from the foil, and the roasted insides should squeeze right out of the peel, or you can cut open the peel and scrape it with a knife to get the flesh out. It should be like a thick paste. Stir the garlic into the tomatoes and mash the sauce all up with a fork.
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds mussels in shells
4 anchovie filets, chopped
6 tablespoons ouzo (anise-flavored liquor)
1/2 cup tomato sauce (see recipe above)
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
loaf of dense, crusty bread
Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until tender over medium, 6-8 minutes. Add the mussels, tomato sauce, anchovies, and ouzo, stir and bring to a boil. Add parsley and wine, cover, and simmer until mussels open, about 6 minutes. Serve mussels in shells in shallow bowls with broth and bread to soak up the sauce.
It's okay if there are only three of you for dinner - save the mussels (you can take them out of their shells) in their sauce in the fridge and check out my other post for another great recipe using the leftovers.
I thought these were immensely tasty. I'm sure the quality of our local yet esteemed Penn Cove mussels played a part, but I liked the idea of the tomato-anise sauce. The anise flavor was basically undetectable, but I'm certain it contributed significantly to the overall depth of flavor, and it gave me an idea for the side dish. I decided to play on the anise theme and serve baked fennel as the side. My friend brought a delicious mixed greens salad with roasted beets and goat cheese that was a beautiful blend of colors and flavors to accompany our meal.
from Lidia's Italy
1 head fennel (12 ounces)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 ounce prosciutto, sliced thinly and chopped
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
pepper to taste
Remove and reserve the delicate fronds from the top of the fennel, and cut the bulb into 8 wedges. You can also chop up the stalk into rounds if it is too awkward on the wedges. Add the fennel to boiling water and boil covered for about 12 minutes. Drain and layer into an 8" pan. Drizzle with melted butter, toss with prosciutto and, and sprinkle with cheese and freshly grated pepper. Bake uncovered at 350 for 25 minutes until cheese is bubbling. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds.
Note: this was just enough for three of us, but it was good enough that two of us would happily have consumed it all. I found the original recipe to have too much butter, so the amount is scaled slightly less.