Served straight from the pot or turned into a saucy delight, the brine makes the dish.
Coconut milk and fresh ginger flavor the sauce for a pot of steamed mussels. (Photo / Jim Scherer)
Cooking mussels produces an abundance of briny liquid. Once the shells open, it spills into the pot to produce a luscious, perfumed broth. Add a splash of wine and a few aromatics like parsley stems, sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf, even some celery tops, and the mixture just becomes more intense. Rich coconut milk and fresh ginger take on a pleasantly strong and appealing flavor when added to a pot of mussels. That seems remarkable when you consider that the slender black mollusks cook in just a few minutes. But it's long enough to turn a simple brine into complex juices that beg for crusty bread - or a soup spoon.
Before you cook mussels, clean them thoroughly. In a bowl, combine the mussels and enough cold water to cover them. Let them sit for 20 minutes.
Lift out the mussels - so you leave the grit behind - and transfer them to a colander. You may see a threadlike piece on the mussels where the shells meet. This is the beard. Yank it hard to pull it off. Discard any mussels that stay open after you pinch them closed.
MUSSELS STEAMED IN COCONUT MILK
Canned coconut milk is available at most supermarkets in the aisle with Asian ingredients. If you can't find lemon grass, omit it.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 large carrot, cut into fine matchsticks
2 stalks celery, cut into fine matchsticks Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, finely chopped Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 small stalk lemon grass, tough outer layer removed, tender inner stalk halved
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nampla), available at Asian markets
1 cup canned coconut milk
4 pounds mussels, cleaned (see above)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
In a large flameproof casserole, heat the oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery, salt, and black pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften. Stir in the garlic, ginger, and red pepper and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
Add the lemon grass, fish sauce, and coconut milk. Bring to a boil and let the mixture bubble steadily for 5 minutes to reduce slightly.
Add the mussels to the pot. Cover with the lid and steam the mussels over high heat for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan several times, or until they open. Use a spoon to lift out the mussels and discard any that do not open.
Divide the mussels among 4 deep bowls, and spoon the vegetables and cooking juices over them, discarding the lemon grass. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve at once.
MUSSELS WITH ROASTED ANDOUILLE SAUSAGE
Andouille sausage is fully cooked, spicy, and smoky. You can also use other cooked sausages, roasting them first to intensify their flavor and give the onion and tomato mixture a spicy taste. The dish begins in the oven and finishes on the stovetop.
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
12 ounces andouille sausage, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can (15 ounces) imported whole tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup white wine or water
4 pounds mussels, cleaned (see left)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 loaf crusty bread, thickly sliced (for serving)
Set the oven at 425 degrees. Have on hand a roasting pan.
Spread the onion, garlic, and sausage in the roasting pan. Sprinkle them with the oil and toss the mixture with your hands so it is coated all over. Add the crushed tomatoes, salt, and pepper.
Roast the sausage mixture for 15 minutes, turning the mixture once during cooking.
Remove the pan from the oven. Carefully tip the contents of the pan into a large flameproof casserole. Pour in the white wine or water and bring to a boil.
Add the mussels to the pan. Cover with the lid and steam the mussels over high heat for 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan several times, or until they open. Use a spoon to lift out the mussels and discard any that do not open.
Divide the mussels and sausage among 4 deep bowls. Spoon the cooking liquid on top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once with crusty bread.
Croutes, in French, means large croutons. They are made from thick slices of crusty bread that have been toasted until golden, and they're a perfect accompaniment to the mussels with sausage. To serve them, set a croute in the bottom of each bowl so that it absorbs the mussel broth and turns into a delicious treat after the mussels are finished.
Ask the Cooks: Booked Up
What's the best way to get rid of a huge collection of cookbooks? Mary Healy /// Gloucester
When you say "get rid of," I take it to mean you'd like these books to go away, for free, and as soon as possible. I was tempted to take them myself, but my bookshelves are jampacked and three cartons of cooking and cooking-related books are waiting in the basement. How valuable your cookbooks will be to someone else is largely dependent on the type you have and their condition.
To make your collection more attractive, sort through them and discard any moldy, mildewed, or damaged books. Consider saving a classic volume with a well-used cover, more a sign of utility than abuse. (My copies of Le Repertoire de la Cuisine and Joy of Cooking are held together with packing tape and more than a little flour.) Next, contact area schools with culinary-arts programs to see if their libraries would be interested in your collection. With ever-increasing budget constraints, even if the books cannot be used in the curriculum, they might be sold to support the program in other ways.
A bit of research reveals that cookbooks are among the top 10 most-sought-after items in terms of donations to, and revenue from, charity fundraising events. The local public library might also accept the books for the same reasons that a school might - that is, to sell, in order to improve or update their collection.
Answer by Peter J. Kelly, a chef-instructor at Johnson & Wales University.