Moules Gratin:

Moules Gratin:  A lovely seafood starter.

Mussels appeal to some people and not to others.  I would ask both groups to try this as it is simply gorgeous; and it is most unlike any other mussel dish I have ever had.  It really is worth a go.

Prep:           20 mins.

Cooking:      15 mins.

Course:        Starter

Serves:        4

Rating:         2:  Easy, if a little fiddly to prepare

Find:

  • 1 kg mussels, in season (or a 300g pack of mussel meats)
  • 1 slice bread to make the fresh breadcrumbs – I used granary multi-seeded bread, but we’ll modify the recipe to suit; see method.
  • 100g hard cheese, grated
  • Dried dill (or, even better, FRESH dill)
  • Butter
  • Optional: Extra seeds, if you have ordinary brown or white bread.  Fennel seeds.
  • Bowls
  • Food processor to make breadcrumbs
  • Ramekins

Method: (including the Golden Rules of Mussels)

Golden Rules, NEVER to be ignored:

  1. Mussels should be closed tight when they are being prepared. They are living and they should be tight shut as they are being moved.  If one is slightly open, tap it with a knife handle and it should close.  If it doesn’t close, bin it straight away because it’s dead, and you don’t know how long it has been so.
  2. Sometimes you will get a mud mussel. This is where the mussel has died of natural causes in the wild (probably been consumed by a sea creature) and the shell has filled up with mud.  The shell may be closed, but if the two shells are slid across one another, the mud will be exposed.  If it is a live mussel, it won’t shift.  A mud mussel can rather ruin the rest when they’re cooking as the mud seeps out.  If you get a mud mussel, bin it straight away.
  3. After cooking (yes, we’ll get to that bit in a minute – be patient) the mussels should be open. Any that are closed will indicate that they are not to be eaten, so bin any closed ones straight away.  Don’t investigate them, just bin them.

If you keep to these rules, you should enjoy every mussel that you eat.

Cooking method:

  • Take your mussels and chuck them into a cleaned kitchen sink. There should be no water in the sink.  Take a normal table knife in one hand and a mussel in another.  Look at the underside of the mussel – there may be what looks like seaweed or plant roots hanging out.  Just pull it away,  You may wish to hold this ‘beard’ between your thumb and the knife to gain a little more purchase to pull it away properly.  Don’t be too pernickety, it is not earth-shattering if the last little bit won’t come away.  Check over the shell and scrape off any barnacles (they look like hard zits or tiny volcanos) into the sink.   The mussel shell may be dirty, but don’t worry about that at this time.  Ensure that it is firmly closed (Rule 1), try to slide one shell across the other (Rule 2) and if all is ok, put the mussel into a bowl and pick up the next one.  I spend about 2 or 3 seconds on each mussel, so you will get quicker (or you’ll starve at the kitchen sink, to be found days later, haggard and under-nourished, slouched over the draining board mentioning something about “I will de-beard this bugger if it kills me….”). 
  • When all of the mussels are de-bearded and de-barnacled, rinse all of the mussels under running water, twice, then drain all the water away (three times). Do not leave them sitting in fresh water because they don’t like it and they will die.
  • Put a large pan onto the stove and put a high heat under it. Splash a tiny bit of water  (or white wine)into it.  Drain the mussels again and then put them into the pan, putting the lid straight on.  Rinse out the bowl, as you’ll need to put the cooked mussels back in there in a few minutes.  After a minute or two, hold the lid on and shake the pan vigorously to move the opening mussels around and give ‘em a proper headache.  Have a quick peek – some of them should be gaping by now.  Replace the lid.  Give another shake.  Another minute, another shake.  You can use a big wooden spoon to chivvy them around a bit. If necessary, give another shake, another peek.
  • When they appear to be all just open or opening, tip the whole lot, including the juices, into the bowl. As the mussels have opened, they will now take up more room in the bowl – it’d better be a big one.
  • If you need the juices, drain them off into a separate bowl.
  • The mussels are now cooked.
  • If you are making Moules Mariniere, the cooking will be slightly different as wine is involved. Moules Carbonara involves bacon.  Moules a la Crème involves cream.  The above is the simple way to cook mussels so that they can be removed (evicted, I suppose) from their shells so that we can do something else with them.
  • Take a mussel shell, now gaping open, in one hand and pick out the mussel with the other, dropping the mussel into another, much smaller bowl. Don’t force the shell open as you are now going to transfer that shell to the other hand and you’ll use it as pincers to take the other mussels from their shells, dropping them all into the little bowl.  Well, I say ‘all’, I actually mean ‘all that you don’t eat as you take them from their shells as they look so nice and taste so lovely’.  Put them aside.
  • Don’t be surprised at how little mussel meat comes from one kilogram of live mussels. It will be enough.
  • Take one slice of granary, multi-seeded bread, or one slice of bread and some seeds (pine nuts, sesame seed, pumpkin, sunflower, etc) and break into the food processor bowl. Give it a good blitzing to reduce it all to a soft crumb.
  • Grate the cheese using a large grater (a greater grater?) and mix this cheese with the crumb. Add a good amount of coarsely ground black pepper and mix again.
  • Method 1. Load the mussels into four ramekins.  Sprinkle with dill – preferably fresh, but dried will do – and then add the crumb and cheese mixture.  Finish off with a couple of blobs of butter to each ramekin.  That’s one way.  Or:
  • Method 2. Mix the cheese, breadcrumbs and mussels and a few fennel seeds) together and then top with more grated cheese.  Finish off with a couple of blobs of butter to each ramekin.  That’s another way.  Or:
  • Method 3. Put a little crumb & cheese mixture into one half-shell, then lay one or two mussels on top, then a little more mixture…. and do that for each mussel shell until you run out of mussels (I told you not to eat ‘em all!).  Top with a small (tiny) blob of butter.  Lay them all on a baking tray.  Yes, it’s blinkin’ fiddly!  But it looks great!
  • Either way, pop them into a pre-heated oven, gas mk 5, for about five to ten mins and you have it; a wonderful seafood starter with an interesting texture.
  • Serve on a little bit of green salad.

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