Peppered Salt is on a seafood kick lately. Earlier this week I made a sweet jalapeno glazed grilled shrimp with coconut rice and it was so good that future Mrs. Peppered Salt requested another seafood dish. This time I was craving mussels. Instead of the traditional herb, butter, and white wine variation, I decided to use flavors that bridge this transitional time between summer and fall. The result was steamed mussels with orange and fennel.
Mussels are intimidating. They are intimidating to order in a restaurant that doesn’t specialize in seafood. They can also be intimidating to cook at home, but we’ll get to that soon. I guess I’m not all that trusting of non-seafood restaurants serving mussels because they are easy to store improperly. I’ve never had a bad experience with mussels, or any seafood for that matter, but I can only imagine that a greasy burger joint may not store the mollusks on a bed of ice, and they may instead store them in water. That is no good.
Someday I’ll get over my phobia of eating seafood at non-seafood restaurants, but until then I’ll buy them from a reputable fish monger and cook them at home.
If you are intimidated by mussels, learn these few key points to alleviate some stress:
- Mussels should not smell like anything other than clean sea water. If they smell like a swamp or a wet dumpster, they are no good and will probably taste like something grown is said dumpster. When you buy them, smell them! Ask the fish monger when they arrived, where they are from, what’s their favorite color, and if the they have any brothers or sisters. Those last two are jokes, but you really do want to build a relationship with your fish monger.
- Throw away mussels with cracked shells or if they refuse to stay closed. If they are slightly open, give the shell a tap, or close it with your fingers. If it stays closed, you are good to go.
- Pull off the beard. No, your mussels aren’t hipster; those beards are not cosmetic and mussels don’t drink PBR and wear thick black frame glasses. The beard is made up of fibers the come out of the shell. They use their beard to attach to things in the water. This is essentially how they grow. I usually pull the beard off while I’m rinsing them in cold, running water. You can use pliers if you need. you will find the beard attached to the section where the two parts of the shell meet. Sometimes mussels don’t have a beard, so don’t stress if you can’t find it.
- Mussels cook fast and they open wide when they are done. Discard any mussels that do not open. They are likely dead and will taste like that dumpster.
- Mussels of course go well with garlic, cream and herbs, but experiment with other flavors. Try a spicy sausage and tomatoes or even try grilling them and topping with buttered breadcrumbs.
This recipe uses fennel and orange. This is a pair made by the flavor gods. Fennel has an anise flavor that mellows the longer it’s cooked. The tart and sweet oranges pop with fennel . If you have never cooked with fennel, you should know that you typically only want to eat the white bulb. Be sure to remove the core (see picture), and use the fennel leaves for a garnish. The stems can be saved for a stock. The recipe also uses leeks. Leeks are some of the dirtiest vegetables. You have to clean them thoroughly, straining 3 or 4 times to remove the grit. Like fennel, use the white stem and reserve the green tops for a stock.
Serve this family style in a big bowl. Have some crusty bread handy because slurping up the broth is the best part. One pound is plenty for two as an entree, or it’s good for four people for an appetizer. You can double the mussels and use the same amount of ingredients in the recipe. You may want to add more liquids like wine and orange juice to create more steam.
Give this recipe a try. It is a tasty variation on the classic mussel preparation. Once you have all your ingredients prepped, the actual cook time is fast and you should serve them immediately. Prep everything ahead of time, including cleaning your mussels, and you can easily duck out of your next party for a few minutes to put this dish together. Heck, you can even make the broth ahead of time (a day or two, even), reheat, and then steam the mussels when the liquids start to boil.
- 1 pound of mussels
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 leeks
- 1 fennel bulb
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (to taste)
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 2 oranges
- 1 tomato diced
- Salt and black pepper (to taste)
- Clean and debeard mussels. Store on ice in the refrigerator while you prep the other ingredients.
- Dice leeks. Be sure to clean thoroughly, rinsing at least 3 times to remove grit. Cut fennel bulb in half and remove core. The core is the only part of the bulb that doesn't look like giant leaves. Cut the fennel in long strips.
- In a large pot, melt butter and oil over medium heat until bubbly. Add leeks and fennel and cook for 1 minute. Add salt and turn heat to low. Cook for about 20 minutes until vegetables are soft and translucent. Stir occasionally and do not burn. Sweat the vegetables, do not fry.
- Prepare oranges. Zest an orange. Juice the same orange and reserve juice. Make orange supremes with the other orange. To make supremes, cut off the top and bottom of the orange. With a sharp knife, slowly cut off the peel so all that remains is the juicy orange. Cut off any white pith. Run your knife between the segment membrane to remove supremes. Too hard? You can also peel the orange, remove as much pith as possible, and chop.
- Add garlic and red pepper flakes to cooked fennel and leeks. Cook for 30 seconds. Add white wine, orange juice and diced tomato. Make sure the liquids are boiling. Add mussels and cover. You can use a steamer basket set on top of the vegetation, or just place them on top without a basket. Cook until mussels open, about 5-6 minutes. Once cooked, add orange supremes, salt and pepper, and serve family style in a large bowl with crusty bread.