Monday, 18 March 2013

Recipe: Mussels with N'duja and Fennel

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It would be great to be writing about how I'd just planted out our seed potatoes or having just put up our polytunnel but the weather continues to be irredeemably gash, so that's not happening. Winter seems either unwilling or unable to leave the stage, despite the booing and jeers from all sides. It really is the tenacious, thick-skinned git of the seasonal family. I stopped being hacked off for just long enough to nip to the shops today, picking up en route one of the foods that is meant to be best at this time of year (Winter, that is); mussels.

Mussels n'duja recipe
Our old friend N'duja
Mussels are one of those things which are amazing when they're good (ie reasonably fresh), and just completely disappointing when not. I hadn't bought any for ages, presumably after a deflatingly mediocre batch last time out. I was reading a review of much-hyped London eatery The John Salt, when I saw they did a mussel-and-n'duja dish which struck me as a phenomenally good idea which must have lurked in my head long enough to be remembered when I saw what looked like a particularly fresh bag of mussels today. Seafood with pork products is I think an excellent wheeze that we perhaps don't see enough of. The ozone purity of white or shellfish stands out brilliantly against the meaty, earthy backdrop provided by some good sausage, and that is exactly the case here. The N'duja melts completely into the white wine and shallot broth, giving it depth, richness and a fantastic texture. I added fennel for an aniseed note and to bulk out the broth, and finished the sauce with a splash of cream and a few cubes of butter.

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Molluscular Gastronomy...
A couple of things I didn't know about mussels before today, but do now, thanks to a quick scan through their entry in the peerless Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: I had always been vaguely aware that it was a good idea to wash your mussels, in perhaps a couple of changes of fresh water, to remove grit. Wrong: fresh water is fatal to sea creatures, so if you are going to try and encourage them to purge themselves of any grit, put them in a brine of 20g salt per litre. This probably doesn't matter too much unless you're soaking them well in advance, but as they start to spoil as soon as they die, is worth noting. Secondly, as the "beard" is attached to the animal inside the shell, tugging on it can significantly injure the poor guy/girl, again resulting in a poorer-tasting or textured mussel. Hence, put off de-bearding them until the last moment, and perhaps distrust any mussels you see completely clean of their beard. Of course, I learned both these facts just after I had de-bearded and soaked my mussels in fresh water, leading to my feeling guilty and careless. Sorry mussels.

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.

Mussels n'duja recipe

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


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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Mussels n'duja recipe
Once the sauce is as you would like it, check for seasoning, then spoon over the mussels and you're done. Now, I generally discard any that haven't opened (on this occasion that was basically none; good fresh mussels at Waitrose by all accounts), but I have heard no less an authority than Rick Stein say this is hocum. Fair enough, but having been ill recently, with shellfish potentially to blame, I'll err on the side of caution.

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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.


  1. Looks fantastic. Thanks for the tip on cleaning mussels, though I doubt I would trust myself to cook them at home.

    1. Fair enough, you can't go that far wrong though I'd say. Are they cheap in the States too?


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