Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mussel Madness

Summer is almost upon us, the sun finally came out the other day, and the average temperature got above 40.  This means plenty of outdoor time, as well as travel around the east coast.  Since neither Joe nor I are from Maine, we have friends and families to visit every summer.  Also, because we are traveling to various locations we tend to bring Maine goodies with us wherever we go. 
A few summers ago, while planning menus with Joe’s dad for a holiday weekend, we decided to find some nice fresh shellfish that I could bring with me.  Being new to Maine, I did a cyber search for good places to buy fresh shellfish on my way out of Maine.  I landed on a wholesale distributor near the border of Maine and New Hampshire that upon asking, will happily sell shellfish to locals if they stop by the distribution center. 
Of course this being a wholesaler means that you have to be willing to buy large quantities of shellfish.  Joe’s dad and I decided that mussels might be a nice option for the holiday weekend, so I placed my order and agreed to pick up the mussels early in the morning on my drive to upstate New York.  Now, when I said large quantities of shellfish I meant it.  Typically in the grocery store you buy a 1 or 2 pound bag of mussels.  That’s enough for two or three people for a sizeable dinner.  I had ordered a 10 pound bag of mussels.  Nice plump, large, Maine mussels in a bag the size of a rolled up sleeping bag. 
It barely fit into the cooler I had, especially with the bag of ice generously added at the distribution center.  The thing with mussels is that you can’t suffocate them.  So I had to keep the cooler unzipped a little, and whenever I stopped for a stretch break or for gas, I opened the bag to make sure they were all still alive.  Basically, the mussels should make snap crackle pop noises as they move the water and juices around inside their shells.  They should smell like the ocean and they should also close quickly when you squeeze them. 
So yes, mussels are alive when you cook them.  But don’t worry, I’m sure they like the warm fragrant bath you put them in.  Plus the resulting dish is totally worth it.

Needless to say, the mussels were a huge hit at Joe’s parents’ house.  I cooked them in two batches and we managed to plow through them with a couple loaves of bread and a couple bottles of wine.  I highly recommend replicating this feast if you can find large quantities of mussels and have an evening you wish to spend around a table.

 Mussels with Chorizo and tomatoes
I purchased a few pounds of locally made chorizo to accompany the mussels.  This was a key ingredient.  If you have a favorite brand of chorizo, you can use that, or any spicy fresh sausage you like.  I have scaled the recipe back here, but if you want to make 10 pounds of mussels, I’ve got a guy who can make that happen.

2 pounds mussels
2 Tb. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
½ fennel bulb, diced with some fennel fronds reserved
1 pound chorizo, cut into chunks
1 can diced tomatoes, with liquid
½ c. dry red wine
2 Tb. fresh oregano
1 sprig fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
First, soak the mussels in cool tap water and let sit for about 5 minutes.  Then drain the water and repeat.  As they are sitting, remove any beards on the mussels, by pulling them towards you while holding the shell still.  If the beards are tough, use the side of a steak knife to give you more leverage. 

Keep the mussels in the water until ready to use.  Next, heat oil in the bottom of a large dutch oven.  Add the onions, garlic and fennel.  Saut√© for about 5 minutes until fragrant and then add chorizo.  Continue cooking until chorizo is just about cooked though.  Then add the wine and tomatoes.  Toss in oregano, thyme, salt and pepper stirring to combine.  FInally add in mussels and stir quickly to coat in sauce.  Cover and cook about 7 minutes, or until all of the mussels are open.

Move mussels into a serving dish and sprinkle with reserved fennel fronds.  Serve with bread, salad and more wine. 

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