Although the huge green-lipped New Zealand monsters nearly put me off mussels for life – too big and way too chewy! – last week I tried cooking Irish mussels for the first time. Coming home from work one evening I nipped in to a local shop called Donnybrook Fair to pick up some essential supper supplies. Walking past the seafood counter down the back, a big sack of navy-shelled mussels caught my eye, along with the price – €2.99 a kilo. Instantly, all thoughts of cheese on toast went out the window as I got a kilo of the mussels, picking up a length of crusty French bread and a bottle of sauvignon blanc en route to the checkout.
The fact that I’d never cooked mussels before and didn’t actually have a recipe in mind didn’t worry me unduly. Sometimes the best inspirations come on the walk home and en route I decided that I wanted to cook them with something gusty and strong, garlic and tomato being the first things that came to mind. While the mussels sat in the sink I grabbed a few books – Darina Allen‘s Ballymaloe Cookery Course, Anne Willian’s How to Cook Absolutely Everything and several of Nigel Slater‘s – and looked for a recipe but nothing appealed. The one thing I did pick up was that the mussels didn’t need to be cooked for long. After preparing the mussels – scrubbing their shells, pulling the beards off and checking if the shells closed when tapped – I flung a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, some of the sauvignon blanc and a tin of tomatoes into my deep sauté pan with some lemon zest, left it bubble and simmer for a few minutes, then threw in the whole kilo of mussels and clamped the lid on top.
After a few peeps to see if the shells had opened I judged them done and landed the pan on the table, along with the heated baguette, the rest of the sauvignon blanc, a large bowl for shells and some tea towels for mopping purposes. Mussels, as with fresh artichokes – where you have to peel off the leaves one by one and dip them in melted butter to savour the flesh at its base – are so fiddly to eat that a kilo lasts a long time and easily serves two with bread and wine. Sweet and succulent, their wobbly flesh was delectable and the sauce at the base of the pan, further enriched by the juices released from the opening shells, was good and plentiful enough to be used to anoint a dish of pasta the following night. Or it could be poured off into cups and served as a light, but deliciously full-flavoured, soup.
Mussels with Garlic and Tomatoes
Tinned tomatoes – 1 x 400g tin
Garlic – 2 cloves, chopped
White wine – 250ml
Lemon – 1, zested
Mussels – 1 kilo, scrubbed and cleaned
Heat a deep sauté or frying pan over a moderate heat and add the tinned tomatoes, garlic, white wine and lemon rind. Bring the mixture to the boil, turn down the heat a little, and let the mixture simmer for a couple of minutes. Add the mussels and cover the pan. Keep a close eye on it and, when the shells have opened, serve immediately.
Serves 2, with crusty bread and the rest of the bottle of wine.