Mussel up (+recipes)

By Grant Allen

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Simple ingredients make humble mussels a cheap dinner delicacy. By Grant Allen.

Moules mariniere - mussels in white wine. Photo / 	Jason Dorday
Moules mariniere - mussels in white wine. Photo / Jason Dorday

Forget about loaves and fishes as a way to feed a crowd - fish has just about priced itself out of the water.

Mussels are one of few bargains left for seafood shoppers. A decent-sized bag to feed 10 will only cost about $20, and with some simple preparation you can put a very respectable feast on the table.

The New Zealand greenshell mussel (Perna canaliculus) is a native shellfish and, for urban foragers, available at most supermarkets. All you need to do is rinse them under cold water and they're ready to cook. If you're gathering from the coast, put them in water before cooking to check they're alive (if they are they'll stay closed). Then scrub them, knock off the barnacles and tug out the beard.

It pays to buy or gather a few more than you think you will need - cracked or unopened cooked mussels should not be eaten. Allow 6-10 mussels per person depending on hunger levels.

You can bake, grill, panfry or deepfry mussels but the simplest way is to steam them in a little liquid, using a solid pot with the lid on.

Moules mariniere - mussels in white wine

This is a classic French dish which you can easily cook at home. Put your mussels in a pot with some white wine, finely chopped onion and garlic. Sit the covered pot on a hot element or barbecue plate and shake it occasionally to nudge the shells open. This should take 5-10 minutes. Discard any that are still closed, add masses of chopped parsley and a wedge of butter.

Barbecued mussels

Another rather dramatic way to cook or smoke your mussels is to use your barbecue. When the embers are low, pile some dry manuka onto the grill. Tip your cleaned mussels on top of the twigs and let the manuka catch fire. The heat will open and cook the mussels while the manuka will impart a distinctly New Zealand flavour.

Mussel fritters

You may want to steam some mussels open to make mussel fritters. These can be made whatever size you like - bite-size, hamburger patty size (how about a mussel fritter sammie?) or baby ones that you serve off the mussel shell. Top these with a simple salsa - this one has finely diced avocado, tomato, coriander, lime juice, avocado oil and a small amount of seeded red chilli.

Everyone has their favourite mussel fritter recipe but think about substituting potato with kumara, adding some citrus zest, or smoked paprika to ring the changes. I always find a good slug of sweet chilli sauce amps up mussel fritters.

Mussel salad

If you end up with cooked mussels left over from your steaming and smoking, cover them, refrigerate and use in a salad the next day. Make a green base with a selection of watercress, spinach, crispy iceburg lettuce, sorrel, rocket and mesclun. Cook some purple Maori potatoes (also called urenika potatoes), let them cool then cut into chunks. Cut the mussels in half, put these on top of the greens and dress with some oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook's tips

By changing ingredients you can transport your guests and their mussels to a different culture. Use the method above to cook them (leaving out the parsley and butter) and add the following ingredients a few minutes after they have started to steam to let the flavours blend and mix with the briny mussel juices.

Thailand: Coconut milk, a sliced red chilli, lemon grass and a dash of fish sauce.

Italy: Diced fresh tomatoes, more garlic and a good amount of torn basil.

Spain: Red pepper strips, sliced chorizo and smoky paprika.

Cook's tools

Tagine

A tagine is both a vessel and the name of a dish . What you cook in a tagine (the vessel) is called a tagine (meal) but you don't need a tagine to cook a tagine. Confused?

A tagine (vessel) is Moroccan in origin and designed to slow cook its contents over a low base heat, traditionally the floor of a cooling bakery oven. You can use them on a low element with a heat mat in between, or in an slow oven. The conical top with a hole in the top allows the contents to cook slowly, with some steam escaping but most condensing inside the dome and dripping back into the dish. The lid is lifted when the cooking is finished and the base used as the serving platter.

Typical tangines (meals) will have meat, spices and dried fruits and be served with piles of couscous. These are wet dishes and need something to absorb their liquid - you could also serve rice and/or some Arab bread. You can cook tagines (meals) in a covered casserole or even a tinfoil-covered baking tray - you just need to allow a bit of steam to escape during cooking. Read a Moroccan cookbook and be inspired.

Tagines (vessels) will vary in size and price. This one is from Cook the Books in Ponsonby, is made by New Zealand potter Mike Donaldson and retails for $140 . Expect to pay between $100 to $200 for a tagine that would cook enough for up to 8 people.

* Follow Grant's COOK news on Facebook.

- NZ Herald

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