Monday, 17 March 2008

Tussles with mussels

Island life has its privileges!

Right, right, so I'm probably stretching it by associating the image of an idyllic hammock and coconut-sipping existence with the teeming concrete jungle more Singaporeans are familiar with, but no matter where you are on this island, you're never more than 30km from the sea. With some imagination and some very useful friends, remembering that we're living on an island is rather easy! :)

A childhood friend of my mom's, formerly a sailor and living less than a 100 metres away from us now, recently retired, and thus indulges regularly in one of his favourite hobbies - fishing. Upon interrogation when I saw him yesterday, I'd found out that he wasn't dabbling in some wimpy tentative fishing from a jetty, but actual braving of waves on a flimsy canoe with real nets and all! Impressive! On top of that, he catches enough for his own family and even has lots to spare for ours (there are 4 of us now - my mom, her mom, her caretaker and myself)!

And so it was 2 weeks ago when he came knocking on our door with his catch of the day - severely barnacle-crusted mussels. The last time I'd seen him prior to the mussel delivery must've been when I was 12, so we of course did not recognise each other, and I was particularly wary about opening the gate to some strange guy foisting free mussels on us (what's the catch? mwahaha, sorry for the lousy pun!). It almost took a comical turn when I was about to look for my wallet and pay him for them until T, my grandmother's caretaker came by and told me that he's safe, heh heh! ;-)

My, my, he had practically a whole BUCKET of fresh lovely mussels to give, and I gladly accepted what looked like 2 1/2 kilos of them, which T said could be split with our next-door neighbour if necessary. Of course, if I'd known then that I had to assume the consumption of more than a kilo of mussels on my own, I would have given more to my neighbour... (eye roll)

my share of the mussels, after removing the barnacles

T and I immediately got down to splitting our share and chiselling off the barnacles with knives of various sizes and it got kinda fun when my mom also joined in the chiselling. Mussels were practically a staple where I'd lived in France, and I took them for granted without ever having bought any to cook at home, having as a result only theoretical knowledge of how to clean and prepare them. When it got down to actually handling them, ulp, I fumbled more than anything.

After having gotten rid of the barnacles, T asked me how I intended to cook them, and I realised, ugh, these poor mussels were still alive and that I'd be personally responsible for their slow steamy death. Maybe due to the fact that they don't have eyes that would stare back at me accusingly, I was able to go on with the "deed", but after seeing all the work involved, I doubt I'd accept live mussels again anytime soon!

I remembered seeing a chapter on mussels when reading one of my cookbooks by Joel Robuchon, so went and dug it out from my boxes which had just arrived two days earlier. Nice. I immediately went out to get ingredients for these herby breadcrumbed baked mussels:

I had more mussels than this trayful!

How to
: (for about 1kg of mussels) Heat mussels until the shells are ajar, remove upper shell (do not overcook).
Fry 5-6 chopped cloves of garlic in butter and olive oil, add 150g of breadcrumbs until golden brown, set aside to cool. Add salt and pepper to taste, 3 tbsp of grated parmesan, and 2tbps each of several chopped fresh herbs (I used thyme, parsley and chives). Top each mussel with a spoonful of breadcrumb mixture, bake for about 20 mins at 180°C. Serve with a wedge of lemon.

I'd initially intended to prepare all the mussels in this way, but after realising they wouldn't fit onto a single tray, I was too tired with heating them and struggling to pry them open and wiping up all the drool (despite T being such great help, without whom I might've ended up eating at midnight), so chopped up some mange-tout, asparagus and garlic chives and stir-fried the remaining mussels with them and some garlic and oyster sauce.