I’ve never been a huge fan of mussels. My dad used to use them in congee amongst other pungent ingredients that I won’t (don’t want to) get into. Despite my admiration for his culinary creativity, it also turned me away from even the slightest smell of mussels for several years.
For those of you who are not familiar with congee. (Courtesy of google images)
Very long side note: Congee is a very common savoury asian dish. Basically, it is a bowl of watery white rice that’s comparable to porridge. Personally, the BEST type of congee needs to have pork, pidan (preserved quail eggs), and spring onions (no mussels! Sorry dad); not just rice. Of course, there are other varieties of congee too, but if you want to try it for the first time, take my recommendation. I wouldn’t lie to ya 😉
It typically goes well with a side dish such as preserved tofu, zhacai (pickled vegetable), or salted duck eggs (my grandmother used to scold me for neglecting the egg whites. The yolk is the key boys and girls. No matter what you do to eggs). I’ve had a few friends in the past who asked me what Chinese people eat for breakfast. At first, I was kind of stumped. Having moved to Canada 15 years ago, I am now so accustomed to having toast and cereal that I couldn’t remember what I ate for breakfast everyday as a kid!? Embarrassing. Well, if you’re still wondering, congee is a very popular food we eat for breakfast. In fact, we can have it at any time of the day during any meal. Now, try ordering french toast for dinner at a local restaurant without the waiter giving you weird looks.
Let’s get back to my mussels experiment.
It wasn’t until just a few days ago that I have had my first VERY tasty mussel experience at a local restaurant that left me aching to go home and recreate the dish. What’s even more impressive was the fact that this place is primarily known as a café. The sauce was a tomato base infused in garlic oil. Sounds simple enough right? The taste was much more complex. It had just the right amount of tanginess and heat at the perfect consistency in a pool of flavours. When I was finished scraping out the last piece of meat in that shell, oh no it did not end there! I had half a bowl of leftover sauce to dip my bread in.
Heaven in my mouth.
I hurried home to google the closest (or what sounded like) top rated recipe, and got the gist of how to do this. At this point I am super pumped to try it myself!
Venturing back from the grocery store couple of days later, I emptied about 1lb of mussels into a large bowl and rinsed it under water. Each one was scrubbed and de-bearded with a knife.
I sautéed some chopped onions and 5 cloves of garlic in a spoonful of butter on medium heat. Added about a tablespoon of olive oil once the butter had completely melted in order to prevent it from burning. After about 2 minutes or so, I threw in a handful of chopped parsley and a touch of salt and pepper. This is what I really enjoy about cooking as opposed to baking; eye-balling ingredients, having temperature control from beginning to end, and knowing that sometimes, it can be reversed/fixed should I screw up. It is the one place I can count on where I do not need to follow things to the T.
Steaming up my camera! I did not take this one from google, as you can probably tell.
Here comes my favourite part. I dump about a third of my carton (man, “carton” just does not sound as sophisticated as “bottle”) of white wine into the pot and mix everything around on medium low heat. A pinch of dry red chilli powder and about a third of my chopped hot green pepper goes into the concoction.
I taste the broth and there is not enough of a “kick”. I grab my chilli powder and tried to carefully shake a little bit of it into the pot. Unfortunately, there was a clump about the size of a dime (10 cents for you Aussies) that I did not see and in that goes too! Now it is way too spicy and my mouth was on the verge of flames! I tried to reverse the damage by dumping two ladlefuls of broth down the sink and diluted it with more wine. At this point, I added the mussels and popped the lid on. Mussels only take 3-5 minutes to open up and although tempting, it is not recommended to cook them longer.
Waiting for the shells to open miraculously
One rule for mussels: Chuck the opened ones before cooking and chuck the unopened ones after cooking. I know it’s common sense, but just thought I had to throw it out there in case somebody tries to bust out a hammer on the ones that refused to open.
Once I had served the mussels, a crucial realization punched me in the face. My garlic tomato mussels did not have any tomatoes! What a huge fail! 😦 Annnnnd of course there are none in the fridge. Fortunately the mussels turned out delicious with the broth I just created mistakenly. It was a hairline too spicy for my taste… But wait a second… *lighbulb!* I can use this broth to bake a seafood pasta dish the next day!
Again, I return from the grocery store the following day with cream, spinach and tomatoes.
I reheat the broth on the stove, added chopped tomatoes, then spinach and watched it wilt to one tenth of its original size.
Looks messy but it’s really starting to become a pasta sauce!
I pour in the cream in increments until the desired creaminess has been reached. This also reduced the intensity of the spice. I grated some cheddar to give it more flavour and texture. Once I have finally established the perfect taste (for me anyway), I sifted all-purpose flour to thicken the sauce.
Everything else beyond this point is self-explanatory (also, I forgot to take a picture of the pasta. Fail #2). I grated more cheese on top of the pasta and shoved it in the oven at 350F for about half an hour or until you get that fantastic golden cheesy crust on the sides. There we have it, seafood pasta bake. Failure of one thing leads to the success of another. This is not to say that I will not give the mussels another go one day. But for now, bon appetite!