I, Jessica, lover of all things seafood, defender of raw oysters, cult follower of everything clam, have never liked mussels.
Sure, I’d order the occasional restaurant bowl, but it was less for the moules, more for the frites. The problem with mussels (not “muscles” friends – I’ve seen that written frequently, which warrants this important PSA) is that if they’re one microsecond past their peak of freshness, they become just plain wretched.
Which is how I’ve eaten them on too many occasions. Even at high-end restaurants where mussels should be held to higher standards. Sometimes a whole bowl is tainted, but most often it’s the one long-dead mussel bomb in an otherwise fresh bowl that can ruin the whole experience.
But it just so happens that on a balmy afternoon in October, we visited The Ivy in LA and my feeling about mussels was about to change.
Let’s backtrack a few days so that I can fill you in on how we found ourselves there.
Rodney and I had just started our second year of school at Berkeley and had thrown a legendary party to break in the new apartment. Reams of students and new acquaintances had poured themselves into our tiny space and we’d stayed up late into the night drinking and chatting.
On nights like these, you often end up with a string of new best friends; some of whom you never see again. Some of whom you do.
Our friend Teddy fell into the second category. Introduced through Rodney’s good friend from college, we immediately hit it off, demanded that he come to our upcoming wedding in Mexico, and promised to visit him in LA.
I was excited for our drive from San Francisco to LA. Rodney and I mapped out our trip, planning to take the scenic route down Highway 1.
Our weekend finally upon us, we took off, hip hop filling the air, and steered our way down through Carmel and the Santa Barbara wine country. We even decided to camp out overnight and I got to use my latest purchase: a thin piece of fabric that was marketed as “the world’s smallest sleeping bag”. Translation: world’s coldest sleep-deprivation chamber.
As dinnertime neared on the second day of our drive, we pulled into a gas station in Calabasas, California. From there, Rodney called Teddy and told him that we’d be arriving at his place in 30 minutes. We were in great spirits. Rodney pumped gas; he spoke with another friend or two while he topped up the tank. I strolled around and craned my neck, hoping to catch sight of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.
And then it dawned on Rodney that with all of the sunshine and good times, he’d missed a crucial detail and filled his tank with diesel.
This, I might add, was no ordinary tank. We were driving our Chevy Tahoe, affectionately known as “the beast”.
For the record, if this ever happens to you, cancel your plans for the next few hours because you’ll be spending them on your back, laboriously siphoning expensive fuel out of your vehicle drop by drop.
We arrived at Teddy’s house at 11PM. The dinner that he’d prepared had long gone cold. Not the best way to christen a friendship. So we did what any good houseguest would do and attacked his wine supply.
The next day, sheepish and hungover, we were in the mood for grub and desperately wanted to give Teddy some space.
Teddy steered us in the direction of The Ivy, which at that point was popular with the movie execs. We somehow finagled a table and nestled into our patio chairs. Once again I craned my neck in search of celebrities, which, in LA, is akin to spotting monkeys at the zoo but with less giddy pointing.
I can’t remember whether we saw anyone of interest; but I do remember my lunch: New Zealand green mussels in a green curry sauce.
When you can recall the exact details of a lunch that you ate 15 years prior, you know that it was good. The green-shelled mussels were impossibly fresh, and the coconut-based curry sauce was spicy, but not overpowering.
I think about these mussels often. I’ve dreamt about recreating them at home. New Zealand green mussel though, are hard to find. I’ve never seen them since – neither on restaurant menu nor in grocery store display.
The good news is that standard black mussels are easy to find. Making it easy for you to recreate this recipe in the comfort of your own home. It’s a glimmer our lunch at The Ivy, minus the guilt and shame. Plus it has the added benefit of some pickled shallots for added flavor. Triple win.
A few helpful tips when preparing mussels:
1. Buy your mussels at the peak of freshness (clearly) which involves asking your fishmonger or Whole Foods fish counter guy about when exactly they received their mussels delivery. Once you find out that the mussels came in “only this morning”, buy as many as you can carry, and race home to make them that instant.
Which might mean taking the day off work and eating mussels for breakfast, but I’m assuming that this won’t be a problem.
2. De-sand and de-beard your mussels carefully. Rinse, soak, and otherwise attend to your mussels beforehand and you’ll enjoy a vastly superior eating experience. (Incidentally, if you’re in Crete and they serve you a lunchtime bowl of mussels with the beards still attached, you still need to remove them. Do not eat them, as my husband did, thinking that because the mussels were served this way, the beards are now magically edible.)
3. Prepare 3 times the amount of bread that you’d normally eat so that you’ve got plenty of material to sop up that beautiful sauce. My favorite way to prepare bread for soppage is to grill it. I highly recommend investing in one of those handy indoor cast iron grill pans that fits right over your gas burner. I use mine weekly (bonus: flip it over and you’ve got a flat surface for pancakes).
You can share this meal with a friend, or do as I did…which is bury your face in it when nobody is looking. Chin dribbles aren’t attractive but they mean that you’re having a jolly good time with your food, which is always a good thing.
So enjoy, let me know how it goes; and if you have any tips on where to find those New Zealand greenshell mussels, I’ll be forever indebted.
- 1 lb bag of black mussels
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- ½ rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt + a pinch more for the grilled bread
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons green curry paste
- ½ cup coconut milk, shaken and divided
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons chopped tomatoes
- handful of chopped cilantro
- 3-4 slices of white country bread
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- Clean mussels by thoroughly scrubbing, debearding and soaking the mussels in fresh water.
- While the mussels are soaking, quick pickle the shallots by mixing the sliced shallots in a small bowl with the vinegar, salt, sugar and coriander seeds.
- When you’re ready to cook the mussels, heat your grill pan on medium heat. Next, heat a dutch oven and fry the onion over medium-high heat in the canola oil for 2-3 mins until starting to color.
- Add the green curry paste and 2 tablespoons of coconut milk and sauté for a minute. Add the cleaned and dried mussels, give the whole thing a stir, andthen place the lid on the pot.
- While the mussels are cooking, grill the bread by placing the slices on the grill pan dry. Grill for 1-2 minutes per side until you get nicely charred marks on both sides. Remove the bread from the pan, rub the hot bread with the garlic clove, drizzle a little olive oil over the top, and then sprinkle with a touch of salt.
- After 4-5 mins, remove the lid from the mussels and add another 1/2 cup of coconut milk and a few dashes of fish sauce and cook for a minute longer. Finish the dish with 2 tbsp chopped tomatoes and the chopped cilantro and the scoop, along with the sauce, into a large bowl.
- Serve with a few more fresh tomatoes & cilantro on top, along with a scattering of pickled shallots and the bread on the side.
- If you need guidance on how to prep your mussels, this link has lots of good information. http://allrecipes.com/howto/cleaning-mussels/