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Mussels and bonhomie at high tide

Mussels in white wine, leeks and fresh ginger

WHAT you don’t want, when you are knee-deep in seawater and things in tiny shells are mistaking your toes for lunch, is for your dearly beloved to be sitting with a wine glass in hand on the beach, convulsed with laughter.

But it would be worth the hysterical derision, we knew, despite our inebriation (did I mention we had enjoyed sundowners on the beach before embarking on our manly quest?). Drin was having a bit more success than I was. He had plucked a good 20 or 30 of the molluscs off the rocks, at least twice my tally. But the cameraderie was shared equally. We were blokes, we were mates, we had buckets in hand, and we were going to have fresh mussels for supper if it killed us.

The tide was coming in, Di and Annie moved further up the beach, and we continued gamely with our quest, even though we were now thigh-deep in water and the sun was fast disappearing. Finally, figuring we had enough or at least as many as the rising tide was going to allow us before the sea claimed two more souls to add to the roll call of those who have been sacrificed to the salty brine of Arniston, we gave in.

We carried our buckets and our sodden, sorry selves up the beach to where the women had composed themselves enough to have a fire going, and cleaned the mussels while a large pot was put to simmer with white wine and aromatics. Eventually the mussels went in, we poured everyone another glass, and completely forgot about the passing of time. After half an hour, someone said, ‘hey, the mussels, shouldn’t they be done?’ They had become tiny, squishy remnants of the proud molluscs they had been only half an hour earlier.

All of which is as good an illustration as any of how mussels should be cooked. Or not.

That was many years ago. This is now. I bought fresh Saldanha Bay cultivated mussels last weekend during a visit to Hout Bay’s Mariner’s Wharf. They were beautifully plump ones. I also bought a whole geelbek (Cape Salmon) which they filleted and butterflied for me, but I kept the head and bones for stock. This time, the resulting mussel supper was great.

Preparing mussels: work at the kitchen sink, which should be clean and empty. Place all the mussels in the sink. One at a time, hold one under the running cold tap and pull out the ‘beard’ while holding the mussel clamped firmly with your other hand. You need to pull the beard firmly and give it a little tug. Discard the beard and then scrub the mussel shell all over with the rough side of a kitchen scouring sponge. When you have done this to each mussel, rinse away any sand, bits and pieces, and then fill the sink with cold water and leave the cleaned mussels in it for half an hour. Rinse again and refrigerate until needed (not too long, Daisy).

How to cook mussels: They very quickly. In fact, there’s hardly any cooking at all. At its simplest, you can simply place the cleaned mussels in a pot on the stove, pop the lid on and leave them for a minute or two to open, and eat them au naturelle. But they’re best, for my taste, when cooked in a poaching liquor, which can become part of the meal.

I made mussels with ginger, leeks, white wine and dhania. Make a fish stock by putting the head and bones of a fish in a large pot with sliced leeks, six peppercorns, three bay leaves, an inch of fresh ginger, finely chopped, and white wine, and reducing. Season and stir. Add the mussels to this, put the lid on and leave for a minute or two. The shells will open almost immediately. When the shells are open, they are done. Throw away any mussels that have not opened – this means they are bad – and ladle the mussels into serving bowls, pouring the remaining liquor and leeks over them. Garnish with lots of fresh dhania.

Make sure there’s plenty of baguette to break into chunks for mopping up all that sauce.

You can vary this recipe any number of ways.

Add cream to the stock before or after cooking the mussels, and reduce down, and then add a dash of brandy and reduce again, for a luxurious option.

Or, instead of the ginger, add chopped garlic and red chilli to the cooking stock, with or without finely chopped tomatoes.

Go the Thai route, but don’t use a wine-based fish stock for this. Thai food is all about the purity and sharpness of the flavours, so simmer lemongrass in water for 10 minutes, add chopped red chilli and garlic, lime juice and a splash of fish sauce, cook the mussels in this, then add fresh basil before serving.

To give mussels a taste of the Cape, braise jeera (cumin) seeds and mustard seeds with two bay leaves in ghee or butter until the seeds pop, add chopped ginger and garlic, simmer for a minutes, then add sliced onions and saute, stirring, for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Add a cup of water, bring to a simmer and season. Cook the mussels in this until they have opened, garnish with fresh dhania and serve.

If you’re doing any of the above on the beach, don’t get sloshed before you start, and try to avoid doing it at high tide.

First published in Weekend Argus January 2011

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