Recently, in the middle of a stressful service, I was challenged to make moules mariniere without any prep, instruction or recent experience. I learnt something important – or rather two things. A) I don’t feel the need to prove myself to other people, and B) this is probably a serious disadvantage in a competitive industry, full of young, male chefs.
“If you can’t do it, don’t worry – we will,” he said.
Okay, you do it.
I believe I have made moules mariniere once – last year on my course – and I have a vague memory of shallots and white wine, and steaming the mussels in a pan with the lid on, but I wasn’t clear enough on the details to actually try it out on a customer. Particularly since I remember the rubbery result of that previous experience.
I have two days off though – time enough to try it out on myself and throw up all day tomorrow if I get it wrong – so I went out and bought mussels, shallots, white wine, parsley and (to me, the most appealing part of the recipe) crusty bread.
With mussels, you begin by washing them, removing the beards and discarding any dead ones. Dead mussels will have open shells, and won’t close up if you tap them on the table, or squeeze them together with your fingers. Once they’re clean, soak them or leave them under a slow-running tap for 5 minutes to remove any grit. Don’t leave them in tap water for too long though, otherwise they die. If you’re not using them immediately, put them in a bowl, cover them with a damp cloth and keep them in the fridge – on the bottom shelf so they don’t drip on anything else. Ideally you should eat them the day you buy them, and clean them only when you’re ready to use them.
To make moules mariniere, start with finely chopped shallot. Some people use white onion instead; some people use garlic as well. You can sauté this for a moment with bay and thyme, before adding the mussels and wine, or Felicity Cloake puts her shallots, herbs and wine in the pan together and simmers them for 10 minutes before adding the mussels. For two people, you might start with a kilo of mussels, 2 shallots and 100ml of dry white wine. If possible, use a wide, shallow pan, so the mussels have fairly even access to the heat and cook at the same time.
When the shallots are sautéed or simmered adequately, drain the mussels and tip them into the pan. Add the wine if you haven’t already done so, then put the lid on. Cook for 3-5 minutes on a medium-high heat, shaking the pan every so often. Check after 3 minutes; if the shells are open, the mussels are cooked. Again, any that don’t open should be discarded.
Some people add cream and parsley to finish off the sauce; for other people the cream dulls the flavour of the mussels. I just added butter and parsley, then spooned the mussels into a bowl and poured some of the sauce over the top.
And the verdict?
A little while ago, I read a book called The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten. He argues that if you’re trying to expand your diet and make yourself like new foods, you should just keep going back and trying them again. Eventually, you’ll start to enjoy them. This is the theory I’m going on with mussels.
The first time I tried them was when I made them at college. They were rubbery and chewy and the sauce was like seawater. (Rick Stein also used the seawater comparison – although he seemed to thing it was a good thing.) Later on, I was offered them at work. Again, all I remember is that they cooled rapidly, were quite chewy and not particularly appealing to eat.
It is always different for me when I make something myself though – I think just because I know exactly what’s happened to it. These were actually soft and tender, ‘fragrant’ and lovely. There was a slight textural suspiciousness, but not enough to worry me. Also, it always surprises me how messy meat and fish are to eat – it’s not like veg, where you can just shovel it in – fingers, finger bowls, napkins, special knives and all this other fussy paraphernalia are involved.
Anyway, I didn’t mind these mussels: I’d try them again. But bearing in mind that you could have a bowlful of mussels and still only get a few tablespoons to eat out of it, I’d still argue that the most important part is the bread.