When I was about ten years old, my Dad was out at sea and my older brother was at the Naval Academy, so the rest of the family went to spend the summer with my Mom's sister and her three kids in Madison, Connecticut, a beach town on Long Island sound. We rented a big old "cottage" on the shore and we all stayed there together, getting to know our cousins and enjoying the beach. I learned to water ski that summer, patiently taught by my aunt and older cousin. After a few spills, I still remember the thrill of the powerful boat pulling me up to skim over the water.
My mother took my little brother, who was about two at the time, down to play in the tide pools at the end of the beach, and there she discovered wild mussels growing on the rocks. She harvested them gleefully, cooking them up with wine and herbs. She offered tastes to any of us but her sister was allergic to seafood and all six of us kids turned up our noses. "All the more for me!," she crowed, and happily ate the whole pot. It wasn't until many years later that I learned what a big mistake I had made.
Now that I have discovered that making mussels at home is easy, I have become obsessed with them. I think we have eaten them three times in the past month. This latest iteration is the best so far.
Before prep began, I started the barbecue. Ours is a Weber grill that uses charcoal, so it needs about 15 minutes to get up to speed. Then I sorted the mussels, discarding any that were open, pulling the "beards" off any that had escaped cleaning at the store, and setting aside the good ones.
Preparation started much like the mussels-and-fish dish that I told you about a few blog posts ago, but with a few key things added. This time, I chopped onion, carrot, celery and fennel into a small dice. I added a knob of butter to a very wide pan with a heatproof handle. When the butter melted, I added about a teaspoon of dried tarragon to the butter and let them cook together briefly before the chopped veggies went in to soften over medium heat. Once the veggies were soft, I added about a cup of white wine (Pinot Grigio from Ferrari Carano, if it matters) and piled in the mussels.
I wanted to have corn with this dish, a sort of simplified "clam bake," so I husked the corn and broke it into two pieces, then set it aside. As the mussels went in, I added the corn to the pan to cook and smoke in the barbecue as well.
The pan was very heavy as I carried it out to the barbecue and set it over the fire. The handle just barely fit under the domed lid. I left it on for about 20 minutes and, when I returned and opened the lid, the mussels were all open and offering their succulent innards. Piled into wide bowls and bathed with the broth at the bottom of the pan, they were colorful and the scent wafting up was pure sea. Poured a glass of wine for each of us from the same bottle I cooked with, and sat down with lots of napkins to enjoy.
The corn got smoky from the barbecue, some of the sweetest we've had this year. The mussels had just a hint of smoke, not as much as I had hoped, but still wonderful. Although everything was swoon-worthy and we enjoyed each bite, the very best part was saved for the last.
The broth at the bottom of the bowls was thin and absolutely crammed with flavor. We could taste each ingredient in that liquid - the veggies, the tarragon (tarragon will definitely go into any future mussel dishes, perfect with the funk of the mussels), the wine, and the bivalves were all present and singing their songs, nicely balanced where none outshone the others. I I'd make this dish again just for the broth. If you gave that broth to an ailing person, s/he would leap out of bed fully cured.
I'm a former ten year old, still kicking myself for refusing Mom's mussels.