Mussels have been eaten for thousands of years. The most common variety we eat is the blue seawater mussel, Mytilus edulis. All over the world, they are used in wonderful starters; either on their own in many different variations, or combined with other seafood and fish, pasta or rice, vegetables and spices or pulses. In China they are cooked with black beans while in France, Belgium and Holland they are eaten with chips (the famous moules frites). In America during the Second World War, they were often served for dinner as a substitute for red meat, which was rationed.
Mussels filter water using a powerful antibacterial action, which is why they are often thought of as “dirty”. The truth is, however, that this reputation should refer to the water mussels live in, rather than the mussels themselves. The growth of cultivated mussel farming means that this doesn’t have to be the case, though. Even so, mussels are always cooked and never eaten raw. It is important to choose fresh mussels which are closed or close immediately when tapped. Therefore, throw away any which are open or broken before cooking and any others which remain closed after cooking.
Although we tend to think of mussels as a restaurant food, they are really easy (and safer than from some random restaurant) to make at home. The only fuss is when washing them inside, unless they are cultivated mussels, which I recommend. Whichever kind you choose, the slight effort is well worth it.
Preparation: Even though they cook very quickly (in less than 10 minutes), mussels can be made earlier- as much as a day before, and reheated carefully before serving. Be careful though! The sauce will need to be heated first, to be followed shortly afterwards by the mussels. Otherwise, by overcooking the mussels they will become tough and rubbery.
Ingredients (serve 4)
1.5 kg mussels
3 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp oil
2 pinches saffron threads
40 ml ouzo
150 ml water
1 tbsp butter
3 tbsp fresh cream
Chives, finely chopped to garnish.
Preparing the mussels: Wash them under running water, cleaning the shell and removing the “beard”. Rinse well and discard any mussels which remain open. Soak the saffron threads in a shot glass of boiling water for 10 minutes.
Note:A wire brush is good for cleaning the mussels, which is the most tedious part of the preparation. You can find cultivated mussels, which are cleaner than wild ones, at the larger branches of supermarkets.
Cooking: Heat the oil in a deep frying pan with a lid. Sauté the spring onions on a medium heat for 2 minutes. Pour in the ouzo, boil for 30 seconds before adding the saffron and water. Cook for another minute on a high heat. Throw in the mussels, put the lid on the pan and cook for a minute until the shells open. Remove from the heat immediately and put the mussels in a bowl and keep warm. Throw away any mussels which haven’t opened.
Boil the sauce to reduce it to 150 ml, then add the cream and stir in the butter until melted. Taste and add salt and pepper according to preference. Tip the mussels back into the sauce at the last minute and stir.
Note: The cream and/or the butter can be omitted for a less-fattening option. The sauce will then be lighter and thinner.
Serving: Tip the mussels into warmed plates or dishes and sprinkle with chopped chives.
Translated by Sophie Athanasiadis