There is something special about mussels. They are surprisingly cheap, for something that feels so utterly decadent, and they taste very much and simply of the sea, no matter how you cook them, and they require the absolute commitment to food that is the hallmark of all the best dinners: hands-on murder, hands-in devouring, and plenty of wine. You can’t eat mussels half-heartedly.
There’s something intensely old, and in a strange way satisfying, about having Alive Things in your house so that you can kill them and eat them. It seems fairer, somehow, than buying lumps of supermarket meat: with mussels, you need to make your peace with eating things that were once alive, and that are now dead, and that you killed to eat. It’s a circle. I like this peace-making; I like these mussels.
The weekend before my breakdown- my breakdown happened on a Monday- my parents came to dinner, for my birthday. It was my 21st birthday, and we made them these mussels. Tall Man is good at mussels, and Mark, our former landlord, always friend, got us them fresh from Scotland, off the ropes.
Can you do this?, said Tall Man to me, and I didn’t know, but they had come a long way, and we had promised, and I loved them.
We cleaned the house together: Tall Man soaking the mussels in the kitchen sink, scrubbing the kitchen table, mopping the kitchen floor; me dusting, sweeping, packing dirty laundry into hampers and lashing them shut. We keep our dirty laundry in a picnic hamper: it’s easier to ignore that way.
We changed the mussels, me holding the colander, Tall Man pouring out the water and the grit.
Are you alright?, said Tall Man to me, and I didn’t know, and we sat together on the sofa looking at the maps on the opposite wall. One day I’ll write about the maps, and one day I’ll write about my parents.
I was pleased my parents were coming. I wanted to be well. I wanted them to see I was well.
Let’s do it together, said Tall Man to me, and I nodded my head, yes, let’s do it together.
So we did, and we fed my parents, and my grandparents, with the mussels, and good French bread, and drank the last of Tall Man’s birthday wine, and it was a perfect evening. It was in many ways the calm before the storm, and the mussels were perfect: salty, hot, boozy and perfect, and perfect.
Mussels With Chorizo and White Wine
Serves 6, comfortably, happily, with bread. All measurements are, obviously, a bit approximate.
Very easy to make lactose-free, gluten-free and vegetarian.
3 hrs. prep, with approx. 20 mins of work.
|3kg mussels (I suggest you get them from Marky Market, because they will be the best.)
500g chorizo (Two rings, minus nibbly bits. Ish.)
250ml dry white wine
|Onions (Three, red)
Garlic (We did a bulb. Adjust according to not being garlic mental.)
|Wok (or equivalent Big Pot, pref. with transparent lid); chopping board; knife; big bowl; lots of water.|
Take a bowl big enough for your mussels; fill it with the mussels, and cover with cold water. Look blankly at the bowl of wet mussels. Wonder what you’re supposed to be doing next. Ask Tall Man. Listen, quietly and sagely, to Tall Man:
“How much you soak your mussels depends on how they grew and how confident you are in their freshness – rope-grown mussels need less cleaning, and potentially dodgy ones need as long as possible to divulge their muck and, ideally, expose themselves as dead and horrible before you accidentally eat them.
Because I’ve had mussel poisoning and I never want it again, I prefer to soak them in maybe five changes of water, twenty to thirty minutes per change (although longer is fine if you’re busy). After the fifth bowl of water, slightly gritty and smelling like a beach just after the tide’s gone out, has been poured away, find yourself a drink of something and start debearding. This will require an extra bowl, and a bin, close at hand.
Each mussel needs to have its beard (if present) yanked off with your fingers or teeth – the beards are made of a filament that the mussel uses to stick to its rock/rope, and legend says that if you weave it you can make a pair of ladies’ gloves that will fit in half a walnut shell. If there’s no beard, don’t worry about it – but if the mussel is open, even a little bit, throw it away. Well-bred mussels stay shut in strange environments, and a gaping shell is a sure sign of a mussel that has died and, consequently, forgotten its manners. Conversely, when you serve them make sure you throw away any that haven’t opened – if they’re that determined to stick to protocol, they’ll almost certainly give you a stomach ache as a party favour. When you have a bowl of closed, beardless mussels, you can start worrying about cooking them.”
Isn’t he wise? He’s a very good Tall Man.
While the mussels are on their last change on water, so before you have debearded them, you can start preparing everything else. Take the onions, and dice them finely; the same with the garlic. Take the chorizo rings and cut them into little chunks- I do them into circles, and then into quarters.
Then you can go back, and follow Tall Man’s instructions on debearding the mussels. When they are debearded, they can sit a minute in their colander, while you take a big heavy pot with a close-fitting lid (we use the wok, obviously) and fry off the onions, the garlic and the chorizo in a healthy knob of butter. (NB: I have tried using olive oil, to make it gluten-and-lactose-free, and it is not as good, but still pretty tasty.)
Ramp the heat up to medium-high, chuck the mussels in the pot, pour the wine over. Tall Man recommends “half a bottle of white, minus a judicious swig”, but this will vary depending on the size of your pot. You’re steaming them in wine steam, not boiling them. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Cover quickly, shout “THREE MINUTES TO DINNER”, and get everyone else to get the bread, and the bowls, and a big bowl for empties. You need no cutlery. This is a hands-on meal.
This is an eating with your fingers spectacular, is what I’m saying.
Watch the mussels through the lid of your pan. The minute they are all open- you’ll see them winking orange or white at you, depending on their provenance- and it will be about three minutes, whisk off the lid, and decant into bowls. Make people come to you, holding their bowls out like little Mark Lester. Big heap of mussels. Big ladle-full  of sauce, chorizo and onion. Half a baguette. Done.
Then we had a lot of cheese, which is the correct and proper ending to a Frenchish sort of meal. All of it was goat’s cheese, or ewe’s cheese, and it was from this shop in Greenwich, which I completely recommend with all my heart, and it was great, and for a very little while, I was as sane and well as I wanted to be, and it was a perfect evening, and we were all together.
1. (Mark, of mussel fame, also gave me a ladle. THANKS MARK. It’s a gorgeous ladle.)