Monday 1 December 2014

Winter Warmers 2: Moules Frites - Creamy Mussels with the Crispiest French Fries

This is the second in a series of three meals which are perfect for the cold winter months. The first two feed into the third (this sexy Seafood Risotto) by providing the ultimate stock, so you can try making all three in one week to get the most out of them. The first recipe, Chicken Paprikás, is here.

This is like Fish ’n’ Chips taken to the nth degree. Shellfish ’n’ Chips! Now, you might associate a meal like this with lazy summer evenings by the seafront, but here’s three reasons why it makes a perfect winter dish.

One! There aren’t many things as enticing on a chilly day as a big, visibly steaming bowl of mussels. Two! Molluscs spend the warmer seasons, ahem… “gettin’ jiggy wit it” (for serious), so they’re all worn out from the exertion. In winter, they get fat and extra delicious. Three! Well… it’s tasty, innit? Comfort grub, like.

Unimpeachable logic. I’m sold!

1) Thinly chip potatoes and soak in cold water with some vinegar for half an hour. Dry completely.

2) While you’re waiting for that, thoroughly clean the mussels. It’s a bit of a job.

3) Deep-fry chips in batches at a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, then drain on kitchen paper.

4) In a saucepan, gently fry finely chopped shallots and garlic in butter until soft.

5) Add cleaned mussels and wine and turn up the heat. Cover with a lid to steam for 5 minutes.

6) Turn up the deep-fry oil to medium-hot, and return the chips to crisp for maybe 2 minutes.

7) Stir cream into the steamed mussels, and serve immediately with the crunchy, salt-sprinkled fries.

Hot damn! Pour that creamy wine sauce all over everything and gorge yourself silly. Leftover sauce should be stored as stock for a soup or risotto.

Shellfish was sent from the depths of the netherworld to cause us suffering and pain. Keep that hell-spawn away from me.

Awww, don’t be like that! Come on! They’re tasty little suckers, especially when done like this. And if you prepare them properly, you’ve got absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Truly. And it’s not even as though they’re fugu fish, just follow the simple steps below.

But yes, if you don’t bother to prepare them correctly, well… you’d better prepare yourself. For a rough night that is. Because… well like you said. Suffering and pain and all that.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 1kg mussels
  • ~700g potatoes (starchy ones, like Russets or Maris Pipers)
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • ~20g butter
  • 150ml decent white wine
  • 100ml cream
  • oil for deep-frying (peanut oil is best, but a little pricey. Beef tallow or duck fat is tastiest, but a little lethal. You can just use regular vegetable oil.)

I don’t have a deep-fryer, so you don’t need one either. Just a pot and some kind of wire-mesh strainer. When buying mussels, make sure they’re shiny and wet. Seafood should not smell “fishy”, it should smell like the sea. Buy them on the day you’ll eat them.

    The cooking time for this recipe is really short, but a bit of prep is required, so let’s get stuck in with that. Start by scrubbing your potatoes clean, then slicing them into thin chips, McDonald’s french fry style. I love thick-cut chips (aka real chips), but this recipe works much, much better with shoestrings.

    Dump the chipped potatoes into a large bowl and fill with cold water. Throw in a few capfuls of vinegar. The acidity will help them retain their shape when they cook, so they don’t break apart. Leave them to soak in the water for at least half an hour, this will get rid of excess starch. You can do this overnight if you like.

    While that’s happening, clean the mussels. This part’s important. Pick up a mussel. If it’s open, tap it hard. If it doesn’t close, chuck it in the bin. It’s dead. It’s the sea equivalent of roadkill. You have no idea how long it’s been dead, and you only want to put fresh ones in your mouth (Rule. To. Live by). Pull off any mossy looking stuff, called the beard, by yanking it towards the hinge of the shell. Use an old knife to knock off any barnacles or other funky junk on the shell, then give it a scrub. Rinse it off and chuck it in a bowl of cold, salted water. Now do that with each mussel you’ve got. I know it’s a lot of effort, but they cook in literally 5 minutes, so it’s just that the time cost is all up front.

    Leave ‘em like this for now. They’ll think it’s the sea (ha, idiots) and start to do their filtering business, which will clean them of any grit they’ve got stuck in themselves. Drain and rinse them quickly again before you cook them.

    Back to the potatoes. Pour your frying oil into a wok, or a heavy based pot. You want the oil to be about 2-3cm deep. Turn the heat on medium-low, and let the oil warm up. While you wait, drain the potatoes and use a clean towel (or two) to dry them as best you can. Test the oil to see if it’s hot enough by pouring in a cup of water. Ha! No. Seriously, don’t do that. Ever. Dip the end of one of the chips in and if it bubbles, you’re set.

    Cook the chips about two handfuls at a time. This step is just to blanch them, so don’t expect them to get crispy. After 4-5 minutes, lift out the chips with a strainer and leave them on kitchen paper to drain off excess oil. You should be able to easily cut one in half with a spatula, then you’ll know it’s cooked through. Once you’ve done them all, set them aside for now. Start heating the frying oil to medium-high (just don’t let it smoke). We’ll finish them after we get the mussels going.

    Really finely dice up the shallots and the garlic. Get out a saucepan with a lid (big enough to hold twice the amount of mussels you have) and melt the butter in it. Toss in the chopped stuff and soften. Keep the heat low. At this point, you can add some chopped thyme or parsley if you like.

    Now, once the onions and garlic are all soft and perfect, add the mussels and the wine. Turn up the heat nice and high and slam the lid down on it. We’re gonna steam those suckers alive! If that makes you feel all confused about your ethics, consider the fact that they’re brainless. And I don’t mean that in the way you always insisted that your little brother was brainless, I mean they literally don’t have a brain. Mussels, while invertebrates, are practically plants. So keep that lid on for 5-7 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally. Then turn off the heat.

    In that time, we’ll finish the chips. Frying them twice is what makes them so kick-ass crispy. Again in batches, carefully lower the blanched chips into the hot oil. Now this time they will brown, and they’ll probably do so in less than 2 minutes. When they look good to you, take them out and once more leave them to drain on paper (somewhere warm) while you do the rest. Sprinkle with salt. Bam. Perfect french fries.

    The mussels and the fries will basically be done at the same time. Remove the lid and you’ll be greeted by a wave of delicious, alcoholic, seafood steam, and a potful of open shells. The flesh inside should be plump and juicy if they’re perfectly done. Slimy is undercooked, shrivelled is overcooked. Stir in the cream to complete the sauce, and serve immediately with the fries. Om nom nom!

One last piece of advice. Any mussels that haven’t opened from the heat? They’re fine. The default position of a mussel shell is open. So closed doesn’t mean it’s dead. They just might need a bit longer to cook. If they still don’t open, you can pop ‘em open with a knife and take a look. If they’re the right texture and smell fine, tuck in. Otherwise, don’t eat them. But it’s a long perpetuated myth that unopened mussels are dangerous. Look it up. Ultimately, the decision is yours.

Finally, this recipe deliberately makes too much sauce for the mussels. That’s because we’ll be making use of it later. What you have there is an unbelievably rich seafood stock, so once the leftovers have cooled, pour it into a container and bung it in the fridge (or freezer). If you don’t eat all the mussels, scoop out their flesh and add them in too. We’ll use that in the next risotto recipe.

(Once blanched by the first fry, the half-cooked chips are perfect for freezing. You can do all the prep as far in advance as you like, then just give them that final blast straight from frozen in the hot oil. Freezing actually improves them! It’s due to expanding ice crystals and all that.

Because the wine is only briefly cooked, and it makes up a major component of the dish’s flavour, use a half-decent one. You’ll also probably have a glass with the meal, a nice white is exactly what this calls for. And lastly, if you hang on to some, it too will get used in the risotto recipe to follow. Bargain.)

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