Mussels are one of my favorite weeknight dinners. They’re sustainable to the environment, fast, easy, and cheap to make. Not to mention they are delicious, and…well, it’s fun to sit around the dinner table with friends or family while stacking up a bowl of discarded shells. I truly believe that mussels should be the mascot for slow eating and slow food because they just take a little longer to eat. Which is a good thing for your digestion, and it’s nice to slow our busy day down to enjoy a meal. I digress…
Despite all the wonderful things about eating mussels, not a lot of people cook them. Which is a shame considering the fact that they taste as amazing as they do. Seriously…no joke, in all my years working in professional kitchens, I would always get compliments whenever I made mussels, which would always make me laugh a little because they would always be one of the easiest items on the menu to make. So hopefully today I can convince you to make them for yourself at home.
Mussels can be bought in most grocery stores for a few dollars a pound. I like to purchase a pound per person (say that 5 times fast), so if you are feeding a family of four, get around four pounds. When buying them, there are a few things I look for. They should always be fresh and alive…That’s right, they don’t look very active, but mussels should be alive right up to the point of cooking. That means no cracked or opened shells, as that can be a sign of dead mussels. Make sure that they haven’t been frozen. I’ve actually never seen frozen/thawed mussels at the store, but better to err on the safe side. They should, however, be on ice. Mussels, as with most other seafood lives all its life underwater, which is vastly colder than above sea level. That means that anything from the sea will start to go bad faster than something from land. We cooks get around this by always storing seafood on ice.
Speaking of storage, when you buy mussels, either ask for a little bag of ice to keep them on for the ride home, or bring along a cooler with some ice packs in your car. Once home, get them out of the bag in which they were packed or else they might suffocate. Any seafood should be used the same day it was purchased, but in the real world that isn’t always possible. So as seen below, if you follow this general set up, you can keep your fish, mussels, oysters, etc. fresh for up to five days. What I did was put some ice in a colander with a bowl or pan underneath to catch any water that drips. On top I laid a very damp towel over whatever it is I’m trying to keep fresh. The towel provides enough moisture to keep your seafood from drying out as things tend to do in the fridge if left uncovered, and also provides oxygen so things like mussels will be able to stay alive. Just remember to change out the ice and re-dampen the towel once a day
Okay, now that your mussels are safe, let’s get cooking. here is a Spanish inspired recipe I developed that balances out the sweet briny taste of mussels with the grassy, rich flavor of fennel and the smoky, meaty flavor of chorizo.
Mussels with chorizo and caramelized fennel:
2 lbs. fresh mussels
1 bulb fennel, medium size dice,
1 link of fresh chorizo sausage, or 1/2 link of dried chorizo cut into thin slices
1 bulb garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
4 or 5 threads of saffron (optional)
salt, to taste
This, like a lot of recipes I use, has some steps that I like to do beforehand. The reasoning behind that is because sometimes cooking a meal involves a lot of small steps, in which time, the kitchen can get a little chaotic and dinner can take longer to finish. Restaurants get your food out to you so fast because they have all their ingredients prepare so that all they have to do is finish the dish. This is the way I like to cook at home because it makes cooking faster and more organized, and is something I’ll be talking about in a lot of my recipes. For this recipe, we will be caramelizing fennel and roasting garlic which cooks low and slow for a long time. So this is how I like to set up my time.
Early the day of or even a day before: set you oven to 300 degrees F. Get a small saucepan or oven safe dish and put 1/2 cup of olive at the bottom. Cut the very top of a head of garlic off so that the cloves are exposed, and set that in the oil while spooning a little oil over the top. Put that uncovered in the oven for an hour. Here’s a before and after of what you’re looking for:
It may take a little longer than an hour, but keep checking on it until it has achieved a deep golden color. Believe me the aroma is amazing.
While your garlic is roasting, take your fennel bulb and trim any stalks or fuzzy bits off the top so you just have the bulb. cut it in half lengthwise so that the root end holds each piece in tact. Now lay the large flat side on the cutting board and cut it horizontally down the middle so that you leave the root in tact. Now cut it in slices, still avoiding the root, turn it sideways and cut into dice sized pieces. With your fennel cut, heat a stainless steel pan with a few tablespoons of oil on medium heat and add your fennel once it gets hot along with a pinch of salt. Cover the pan and check on the fennel every five minutes to make sure nothing is burning. The goal is to steam the fennel in its own moisture to cook it through. Once the fennel is soft, remove the cover and turn up the heat to medium high and have a cup of water and wooden spoon on stand by. once you see little brown bits forming on the pan, pour a few drops of water over it and use the spoon to scrape the bits off and into the fennel. This is called deglazing, and is what gives the fennel its rich flavor. Repeat doing this until the fennel is deep brown and completely soft. season it with a few pinches of salt and reserve for later use. I have a great post on caramelizing onions, and is basically the same fundamental idea of caramelizing fennel. By now the garlic should be almost done. Once it is all finished, save the garlic and the oil. Also, if your fresh chorizo is in a casing, use a knife to cut the casing off and reserve that as well. it should look like hamburger meat. If you can’t find fresh chorizo, you can use other fresh sausage, or buy the dried chorizo, just cut it in thin slices before using and use half as much as it has a stronger flavor.
When you are ready to cook your mussels, get all you ingredients out in front of you and turn your oven to its lowest setting. Get out a serving dish and keep it warm in the oven are cooking. In a large stainless steel pan or pot set over medium high heat, add three tablespoons of your garlic oil and five cloves of the roasted garlic. With a spoon or fork, mush the garlic and oil together to make a paste. Now add three spoon-fulls of the fennel and warm in the oil. Add in the chorizo and stir to crumble. With the chorizo almost cook through, add in the mussels and pour in the wine. There will be some steam and hissing. Add in the saffron(optional), turn the heat to low and cover for three minutes The great thing about mussels is that they tell you when they are done. When you see the shell open, they are ready. If some of the shells aren’t open, stir the pan a little and cover again for another minute. The musses will season the surrounding liquid but if it needs a little salt, season to your liking. If you are cooking for more than two, cook in batches while adding your warm dish in the oven so that it all stays hot.
I like serving with fresh bread, good quality butter, and a really crisp chardonnay The juice from the mussels along with the wine and flavors of all the other aromatics is incredible. I like to think that this dish is the perfect example of how fresh and light seafood can taste. If you were thinking of serving this over pasta…you would not be sorry either.
The whole point of this s recipe is to share something from my experience that I truly love while also opening up your minds to using ingredients you may not normally use. Mussels are a little unknown to most of use, which can be a deterrent. But give this recipe a try and I know that you will be eating a lot more of them!!