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Mussels are the most generous shellfish

Rachel Allen

Mussels are one of nature’s most versatile ingredients and work so well in stews, pasta, soups and curries, says Rachel Allen, who has some wonderful recipes to showcase the sweet, fleshy shellfish


Versatile: Mussels. Photo: Maja Smend

Versatile: Mussels. Photo: Maja Smend




Versatile: Mussels. Photo: Maja Smend

Mussels are the most generous shellfish; they have so much to offer the cook. The chunks of sweet orange flesh are at home in a huge variety of dishes, such as soups, stews, sauces, pasta and curries. They can be cooked in a pan, steamed or fried.

Their flavour is versatile, pairing with those from a great range of culinary traditions - the wine and herbs of Europe; hot Indian spices; exotic east Asian aromatics; and even the fermented flavourings of China. It isn't just their flesh that they offer - the rich juices that are released from mussels as they cook are packed with a gloriously rich flavour.

As one of the few truly sustainable foods from the sea, mussels are quite cheap. They are available at fishmongers, as well as many supermarkets. While they are simple and easy to cook, there are a few important things to keep in mind when cooking mussels.

They need to be rinsed in cold running water a couple of times to remove the sand and grit. Give them a scrub to remove any barnacles or sand from their shells, then use a sharp knife, or a firm tug, to remove the 'beard' - this is the fibrous tuft that sticks out of the shell on the straight side. It's really important to discard any mussels that are open and won't close when they are tapped, see Rachel Recommends, right.

Mussels only take about three or four minutes to cook; cook them for any longer and they can be tough. They're cooked as soon as the shells open.

This mussel, chorizo and saffron soup, right, is a great recipe, with lovely, sunny Spanish flavours. It'll freeze well, too.

The mussels steamed in coconut milk with lime and coriander recipe, far right, is, just like a lot of south-east Asian food, about balancing lots of different flavours together - the mussel broth, the salty fish sauce, the sharp lime juice, the rich creamy coconut milk and the fresh coriander. It can be served just as it is in a deep bowl, or if you fancy, serve it with boiled rice, noodles, or some crusty bread to mop up all that deliciousness.

And if it's a deeply luxurious mussel sauce that you are looking for, to serve with roasted, baked or pan-fried fish, then look no further than this mussel hollandaise recipe, also far right. Molly Malone would be proud.

Rachel recommends

When you're cooking with mussels, it's really important, first of all, to scrub their shells clean, and check that all of the shells are tightly closed. If one is open, tap it - if it closes, it's good, so keep it. If any stay open, however, throw them out - they are dead and you don't know how fresh they are.

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Mussels steamed in coconut milk with lime and coriander

Serves 4-6

You will need:

1 onion, finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely grated

½ to 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

400g tin of coconut milk

1.5kg mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded

Juice of ½ to 1 lime

2-4 tablespoons nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

1 generous tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

1 Place the finely chopped onion, the crushed or finely grated garlic, whichever you're using, and the finely chopped chilli into a saucepan large enough to hold the mussels. Add in the tinned coconut milk, bring to the boil, and simmer for about 8-10 minutes, or until the onions are cooked.

2 Meanwhile, check that all the mussels are tightly closed; discard any that remain open when tapped - see Rachel Recommends, below left.

3 When the onions are cooked, add in the mussels in their shells, put the lid on the pot and cook the mussels until they are wide open.

4 Season them with the lime juice and the nam pla.

5 Serve the mussels in their shells along with the coconut broth, and scatter the chopped fresh coriander over the top.

Rachel's top tip

Here's the best way to clean leeks: trim the dark green ends off, then place the leeks upside down in a jug of cold water. Allow them to stand for about 10 minutes, in which time any soil trapped inside will sink to the bottom of the jug.

Mussels, chorizo and saffron soup

Serves 4

You will need:

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

125ml white wine

1.5kg mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded, see Rachel Recommends

150g chorizo, peeled and finely diced

2 medium carrots, finely chopped

2 medium leeks, white and tender light greens parts only, finely chopped - see Tip

2 garlic cloves, crushed or finely grated

1 bay leaf

1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes

¼ teaspoon saffron threads

600ml fish stock or chicken stock

125ml cream

Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 Place a large pan on a medium heat, add two tablespoons of the olive oil and half of the finely chopped red onion, keeping the rest aside for later. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes until the onion is softened but not coloured.

2 Add the white wine, increase the heat to high, and bring to the boil. Now add the clean de-bearded mussels. Cover the saucepan with a lid, and cook the mussels until the shells are open - this should take about four minutes. Strain the cooking liquid into a large bowl and reserve it for later. Remove the mussels from their shells and discard the shells. (If you wish, you can keep a few mussels still in their shells to use as a garnish.) Set the mussels aside.

3 Add the remaining olive oil to the pot and place it on a medium heat. Add the finely diced chorizo, the finely chopped carrots, the finely chopped leeks and the remaining finely chopped red onion. Turn the heat down to low, and cook the chorizo and the vegetables, stirring them occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until the vegetables have softened.

4 Stir in the crushed or finely grated garlic, whichever you're using, the bay leaf, the tinned chopped tomatoes, the saffron threads, the fish stock or chicken stock, whichever you're using, and the reserved mussel cooking liquid. Bring to the boil. Now turn the heat down to low, and simmer the soup for about 30 minutes until the tomatoes have completely softened.

5 Stir in the cream and increase the heat to medium. Simmer for a few more minutes, and taste for seasoning adding sea salt and freshly ground white pepper if necessary, then add the cooked mussels you set aside earlier, and continue to cook for one minute just until the mussels are heated through. Don't overcook the mussels or they will shrink and toughen.

6 Ladle the soup into deep bowls, sprinkle with the chopped fresh parsley, and if you have reserved mussels in their shells, add them now.

Mussel hollandaise sauce

Serves 4

You will need:

2 egg yolks

1 dessertspoon cold water

110g, butter cut into dice

A squeeze of lemon juice

16-20 mussels in their shells, scrubbed and de-bearded

1 tablespoon water

A pinch of salt

1 Put the egg yolks in a heavy stainless-steel saucepan on a low heat, or in a bowl sitting over some hot water. Add the dessertspoon of cold water to the egg yolks, and whisk thoroughly.

2 Making sure the heat is very low, add the diced butter bit by bit, whisking all the time. As soon as one or two pieces of butter melt, add another one or two pieces. The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove the saucepan or the bowl, whichever you're using, from the heat immediately and add a little more cold water to the sauce. Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. Finally add the lemon juice to taste. If the sauce is slow to thicken, it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly (see Note, below) and continue to whisk the sauce until it thickens to a coating consistency - meaning it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon evenly.

3 Put the sauce in a bowl or jug (I use a Pyrex pint measure) and sit the bowl or jug, whichever you're using, into a saucepan of steaming hot - but not boiling - water. The sauce will keep warm like this for a couple of hours, but you need to maintain the water temperature by placing the saucepan on the heat every so often, and taking it off before it boils - as if it gets too hot, the sauce will split or scramble.

4 Now, cook the mussels. Check that all the mussels are tightly closed; discard any that remain open when tapped - see Rachel Recommends, below left. Place them in a saucepan with one tablespoon of water. Cover the saucepan with a lid and cook the mussels over a medium heat for about four minutes until the shells are open.

5 Now extract the mussels from their shells. Discard the shells.

6 Add the mussels and any juices that are in the pan, to the hollandaise sauce. Taste for seasoning - you might need to add a little more lemon juice, and perhaps a pinch of salt, but if you have used salted butter to make the hollandaise sauce, then it might not be necessary.

7 Serve with fish.

Note: If you are making hollandaise sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand, it is also too hot for the sauce.

In season: chives





Fresh chives are an ideal herb to pair with mussels. Wash them, then make sure to pat them dry with a clean tea towel before slicing them finely.

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