|Our old friend N'duja|
One final note on cleaning and de-bearding these guys: I've always seen this as one of those repetitive kitchen tasks that, in the company of something though-provoking on the transistor, can pass the time very agreeably. On a holiday in Mull a few years back Kasia and I decided to cook moules mariniere for everyone, as we were staying just along the road from a mussel farm (£1 for a kilo!). Kasia cleaned and debearded 7 kilos of the things. The reception on Mull was crap anyway, but even if we had been able to get Radio 4, it would have taken one hell of a show to make that time pass any quicker.
Ingredients (Serves 2, with plenty of bread)
- Around a kilo of fresh mussels.
- 4 small shallots, finely sliced
- 1 smallish bulb of fennel, very finely sliced, then chopped again
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- A good tablespoon of n'duja. Yes, chorizo is fine, but it won't melt into the sauce the way n'duja will
- Approx 150-200 ml white wine
- Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped.
- A splash of double or whipping cream
- Butter, Maldon or other decent salt, fresh ground black pepper
- In a large, heavy bottomed pan, sweat the shallots, fennel, n'duja and garlic in a healthy blob of butter over quite a low heat. You want it all to soften but not brown. Put the lid on while doing this if you feel so inclined. I like to give a good season at this stage. Layers of seasoning and all that.
- Once things have softened, but the fennel still has some bite, turn the heat right up and add the wine. Boil hard for a couple of minutes. You want the wine to reduce a bit and for the alcohol to evaporate, making it less bitter.
- Add the mussels, give a good stir round in the liquor, then it's lid on and continue to boil quite hard until they all, apart from the odd renegade, open up. This shouldn't really take more than a few minutes. Give them a good stir round a couple of times during this so they cook fairly evenly.
- Turn the heat right down, add the cream and parsley, and give a good stir. Peer inquisitively into the bottom of the pan (if anyone is watching, a thoroughly raised eyebrow should create a convincing effect); is the sauce a pleasing texture? If it looks a bit too watery, ladle all the mussels into pre-heated bowls with a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid in the pan, then boil it hard until it reduces into a nice sauce. A couple knobs of butter at this stage will help achieve a glossy texture. I had to do this; I suppose it depends quite how much juices your mussels gob out as they cook.
With a whole rustic baguette to soak up the sauce, this is one of the best things I've eaten in quite a while. The spicy, rich n'duja, perfumed fennel and garlic/white wine broth are the perfect foil for these bivalve treats. And they were treats too, full, plump and sweet. If we must toil on in this absurdly elongated winter, then at least in it's death-wheeze it's nice to eat something that's still good now but backed by a supporting ensemble that speaks of warmer times to come.