We are back from Philadelphia! Thanks for all of your suggestions and helpful hints, and yes, there are two reviews coming, but first, a recipe. Well, kind of a review and a recipe. It all started a few years ago, when our friend Scot the Art Professor moved to Columbus from New York. He lamented the lack of cheap eats in Columbus, and the lack of mussel & fry joints. He had lived in Philly, too, and was want to wax poetic about the buckets of mussels and fries at the Belgian restaurants sprinkled about the city. I had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded glorious. I had sort of forgotten about it until a very nice reader told me to go to Monks whilst in Philly.
We decided to stop by for some Flemish sour ale and a bucket of mussels before continuing on to dinner at another reader-recommended spot.
All in all, a less than stellar experience. The fries weren't crisp (although served with a tasty, spicy bourbon mayo), the steaming liquid left a little to be desired, and about half of the mussels were sandy and poorly cleaned.
All of that left me desirous of good mussels. Mussels are easy as pie, delicious, and best of all, cheap. Well, compared to other types of seafood. I bought these mussels for $4 a pound at Weiland's, and the fish counter boy was nice enough to take out all the dead guys. I only had to discard 3 mussels out of two pounds when I was cleaning them. Mussels, along with their aromatic steaming liquid, become much more than the sum of their parts when well treated. There is something so insanely delicious about the leftover liquid, so be sure to have croutons or toast on hand for sopping up. Under no circumstance should you discard the leftover liquid. Freeze it, along with any mussels removed from their shells, for a reason which I will share in another post.
Mussels are quite good for you; like most shellfish, they are high in protein and low in fat. Mussels can be pretty easily sustainably farmed; indeed, they practically farm themselves by clinging to ropes hung below the ocean's surface. Mussels have low contamination, making them safe for frequent eating, and are considered an "eco best" fish by Oceans Alive.
Okay, so. You decide you'd like to have mussels for dinner. As with all seafood, purchase them from a reputable fishmonger (the Fish Guys, Weiland's, Whole Foods come to mind) with high turnover. Purchase mussels the day you intend to eat them. When you get them home, pour the mussels into a colander and clean them. I like to scrub each mussels individually with a potato brush under cold running water, because I think the cleaner the outside of the mussels, the less likely you will get grit and other yucky substances in the finished product. As you begin scrubbing and rinsing the mussels, they should close. If they don't close, squeeze them a little, or give them a little tap on the counter. If they don't close, discard them. Mussels have bristly "beards" which they use to attach themselves to other mussels, rocks, and farming ropes. The beard is usually removed before sale, but inevitably there are leftover bits which you can just pull off; I find it's usually helpful to use a towel to help me grip. Simply pull firmly and the beard will come off. If you aren't going to use them right away, they can spend a few hours in the fridge covered with damp paper towels - but not longer than 4 hours or so!
I served these mussels with toast spread with roasted garlic, and croutons. I like to use the toast early, and then when most of the mussels are gone, toss a few croutons into the broth at a time and let them soak up the mussely, garlicky goodness. If you don't wish to use alcohol, use tomato juice, vegetable stock with a pinch of lemon juice, or other flavorful liquid, not just water. So, after our Monk's experience, we finally had some very tasty, proper mussels. Not a single gritty mussel in the bunch. So, Art Professor Friend, consider this an open invitation for some good mussels. I might even be convinced to make some frites to go along.
Mussels - serves 2-4, depending on how hungry everyone is.
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, divided
2 large shallots, chopped into small dice
2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise, and then cut into 1/8th" half-moons
salt and pepper
4-6 cloves garlic, or more - depending on your love of garlic
1 375ml bottle dry vermouth
Place a large stock pot over medium heat and add a little olive oil - 2 tbsp or so. Add the shallots and leeks, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until the leeks are soft enough to chew through. Add 1 tbsp of butter and the garlic, cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and the garlic is cooked. Turn the heat down a little, if necessary, to avoid burning the garlic. Because burnt garlic is no good. Add the dry vermouth and turn the heat up to high. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce very slightly - a minute or so. Tumble the mussels in - I love the sound of mussels crashing together - sprinkle with salt and pepper and place the lid on the pot and steam for 3 minutes. Remove the lid and add the remaining butter; shake the pan a little bit to incorporate the butter, give everything a good stir for one more minute (for a total cooking time of 4-5 minutes). The mussels are done when they open - do not overcook them! They hate that!
Spoon desired amounts of mussels into bowls and ladle some of that yummy liquid over. Serve with toast and croutons. Slurp and enjoy. Yum!