Tuesday Night Test Drive

Mussels in Cider

by Diane Leach

6 February 2014

Mussels are an inelegant if delicious food. Serve this to your nearest and dearest with nary a thought to table manners.

Mussels in Cider comes straight from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella’s Kitchen, a cookbook I go on about, but it sees a lot of action in my kitchen. Forget Lawson’s recent bout of public scrutiny: the woman can cook. I’ve never had a recipe of hers go awry, even when baking, my weakest point in the kitchen. And Mussels in Cider, as she puts it, is a recipe that “doesn’t begin to convey the luxe-for-less-time gloriousness of the feast”.

I actually test drove this recipe on a time-crunched Saturday night, but “Saturday night test drive” lacks alliterative punch. But Lawson is right: the results far outweighed the crazed five minutes of prep (truly, I was frantic) and the one pot I needed to wash afterward. I used Price Edward Island mussels, which my fishmonger sold cleaned and debearded.  Five dollars worth amply fed two. 
The recipe:

4 ½ pounds mussels (I told my fishmonger I was feeding two and he handed me a bag.  I’d guess it was about three pounds.)
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped/or 3 scallions/or a shallot, peeled and minced
2 peeled, minced garlic cloves (Fearing a vampire incursion, I upped quantities to 4 large cloves.)
3-5 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 cups hard dry cider (I used Oliver’s Traditional Cider, which is conveniently bottled in 16.9 ounce bottles.)

Notes on mussels: The fishmonger instructed me to place the mussels in a bowl lined with a damp dishtowel, then to cover the bowl with a second damp dishtowel and refrigerate it. 

To prepare mussels for cooking:

If your mussels are uncleaned: clean dirty mussels by filling your sink or a basin with cool water. Soak mussels a few minutes, until the grit disgorges.  Scrape off barnacles with a knife and yank off beards. Discard mussels with broken shells. If a mussel is open, tap it gently on the counter. If it remains open, discard it.

If your mussels are cleaned, go over them and pick off any bits of barnacle or beard.

In a large, preferably lidded saucepan that will hold all the mussels, pour in the olive oil and turn the heat to medium. Add the onion/scallions/shallot, garlic, and one tablespoon of the parsley and stir gently, letting everything soften for a minute.

Now turn up the heat, pour in the cider, add the mussels and smack the lid on the pot. Mussels don’t take long to cook, so now isn’t the time to check your email. Shake the pan a couple times. After two minutes, have a look. If the mussels are gaping, take the pan off the heat. If not, give them a couple more minutes. You may need to stir the mussels a bit to ensure each has contact with the heat. Don’t give them more than four minutes total: you don’t want orange rubber erasers for supper. 

Discard any mussels that fail to open.

Lawson suggests resting the pan a few minutes, allowing any sediment to fall to the bottom. I skipped this step—see harassed state, above—and the dish came to no harm.

Divide the mussels and their liquor between two large bowls. Serve with crusty bread for dunking in the “ecstasy-inducing liquid”.

Mussels are an inelegant if delicious food. The more civilized among us use a half-shell to eat them, delicately pulling each morsel from its moorings, then using said shell as spoon to neatly sip each drop of liquid. Barbarians use fingers (ahem), tossing empty shells into handy nearby receptacles, placed there expressly for such purpose. The liquid they sop messily with enormous quantities of bread.

By virtue of what the English call their “fiddliness”—that is, their inability to be eaten politely, half-shell or fingers be damned, mussels are not what you’d serve to prospective in-laws.  They are instead food for intimates, food for frazzled nights when something good must be got to the table, fast.

Theme and Variation:

Lawson notes that you can add cubed pancetta to the onion at the beginning of cooking. She finds it a frill; I agree.

If you are unconcerned with your weight or cholesterol levels, you could butter the bread before dunking it in the mussel liquid. 

You will have ecstasy-inducing liquid left over. Eat it the next day with rice, bread, or soba noodles.


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