'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 27 May 2013

Mussel risotto

A friend of mine was kind enough to take me to the local Findlay Market a few days ago, and I seized the opportunity to buy some fresh and plump mussels from the fishmonger there. I've always loved mussels - I can't get enough of their marine aromas, their juiciness and the ease with which one can reasonably cook up a good mussel dish. They're much easier to clean than, say, clams, too. (They didn't used to be, apparently!)

I used about half of the mussels I bought to cook in a Thai-style stew which turned out really well. I cooked them like moules à la marinière except the flavourings were Thai: coconut milk, red curry paste, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, lime juice. They turned out remarkably well although I improvised the dish:

I was rather encouraged by my little success with these little molluscs, and I wanted to cook something I'm a little unfamiliar with. I flipped through my cookbooks and came across a recipe of mussel risotto by Simon Hopkinson. I tried to think when was the last time I made a risotto, and I quivered when it struck me that it was 9 years ago, back in my undergrad! I still remember it was a pumpkin and bacon risotto I cooked back then. While I still remember the basics of cooking a risotto, I'm hardly experienced with cooking this ubiquitous staple of northern Italy.

Thankfully, Simon's recipe rarely fails, and I was rewarded with a glorious dish beaming with flavours of the sea. It was so sensational that I was almost in disbelief when I had my first bite. It was a beautiful amalgamation of al dente rice grains, plump mussels, acidic white wine and tomatoes, all spiced up by subtle garlic and parsley, and the final addition of butter binds everything together in a homogeneous mass of deliciousness.

I must confess that used one tomato instead of two because I'm not too keen on them, and I also needed more stock than Simon's recipe suggested. My only serious qualm about the recipe, however, is that the portion seems to feed one, rather than two, people (which Simon reckoned would serve). I adjusted the amounts slightly, but here is the recipe word by word from Simon's incomparable Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.

Mussel risotto

serves two, hopefully

1 onion, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
200ml (3/4 cup) dry white wine
1 kg mussels, cleaned and debearded
250ml (1 cup) light chicken stock, or more
2 very ripe, large fresh tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped
150g (3/4 cup) Carnaroli rice, or other rice suitable for risotto (I used Arborio)
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
A pinch of dried chilli flakes
A little salt, if necessary
1 tablespoon softened butter
  1. Before you do anything at all, have ready a large colander suspended over a pan and in the sink. Soften half the onion with half the olive oil in a large pan that will accommodate the mussels. Turn up the heat, pour in the wine, add the mussels, shake the pan about a bit, and put on the lid, still over a high heat. After about 2 minutes, remove the lid and shake and toss the mussels so that those initially underneath now appear on top; you will notice, from this action, that the mussels underneath have already started to open. Replace the lid, cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes and then repeat the shaking and tossing motion. Depending upon strength of heat, you may have to do this once more, but if it looks as if most of the mussels are now open, tip the whole panful into the colander in the sink. Leave to drain for at least 5 minutes, giving the colander an occasional shake to ensure that all the remaining juices drip through.

  2. Once the mussels are cool enough to handle, extract all the meat from their shells and collect it in a bowl. Cover and set aside. Take the mussel-cooking liquor that has now collected beneath the colander and strain it through a very fine sieve into the stock. Pour this mixture into a pan and place over very low heat to keep hot, but not to boil. (You may not necessarily use all of this; any leftover can, of course, be frozen for a subsequent occasion.)

  3. In an entirely new solid-bottom pot, heat the remaining olive oil. Soften the remaining onion in this and then add the tomatoes. Briskly cook together for a few minutes until reduced to a sloppy paste. Add the rice and stir around in the tomato mess until thoroughly coated with it. Introduce the first ladle of the hot stock and vigorously stir in. Only consider adding a second ladle once this has been fully absorbed. And so on, until the rice is nearly cooked; taste a grain: it should still possess 'bite'.

  4. Now add the shelled mussels and stir in, together with what should, hopefully, be the final ladleful of stock. Sprinkle in the garlic, parsley, and chilli flakes and carefully fold everything together, while also making sure that you do not pulverize the naked mussels, which are now fragile, having been robbed of their protective shells. Taste for salt&mash;probably not necessary—and finally stir in the spoonful of softened butter. Cover the pot with a lid and leave to settle for 5 minutes. Serve from the pot at a table, directly onto hot plates.

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