For me there's nothing more representative of the ocean than shellfish, particularly the beautiful blue mussel. I have always had an affinity for the ocean, and before my foray into marine biology, I was first and foremost a young curious kid who avidly collected shells to learn all about them. As a kid though I wouldn't eat mussels, or any shellfish for that matter; I thought they were just too beautiful or too gross. Now I can hardly remember a time that I didn't love eating shellfish. Ever since my first time having moules marinière, I have been in love with the sweet briny flavor of mussels. With a slice of crusty bread in hand, I now dive into a bowl of mussels with conviction.
That flavor marries perfectly with white wine and garlic, the basis for preparing moules in any of the Mediterranean countries. In this recipe, I augment those traditional flavors with the addition of slowly sautéed leeks for a sweet onion flavor and a unique fresh celery-like herb, lovage. This cousin of celery most resembles a cross between celery and parsley, both in appearance and in taste. An interesting fact is that the spice commonly sold as dried celery seed is actually lovage seed. As a fresh herb, lovage lends a bright flavor to foods, and just a few sprigs can add wonderful flavor profiles to soups and stews. Here in this recipe, it replaces the more traditionally used parsley just for one final twist.
The great thing about mussels is that they are much less expensive than other shellfish. They are so easy to make at home that it's not worth paying exorbitant restaurant prices for a heaping plate of them. First, one must be willing to scrub and handle them with a Julia Child–like determination. Thank goodness it's not like cooking lobster, but, yes, mussels are alive when you buy them. To get the freshest product, they have to be.
When buying mussels, look for shells that are unbroken and unopened. Just like any fish, they should smell of the sea. Once home, the test of liveliness is to rap any shells that are slightly open. If they close on their own, then they are fine and were just taking in some fresh air. If they do not close, they should be thrown away. Mussels that do not open after steaming are more likely stubborn than dead and should be cooked a bit longer.
Drunken Mussels with Leek and Lovage
2 pounds mussels
1 medium leek
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup off-dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped lovage leaves
Add mussels to a large bowl and fill with cold water; let soak for 20 minutes. Scrub each mussel and remove the beard by pulling toward the hinge using a towel between your thumb and forefinger for leverage. Let mussels drain in a colander.
Slice leek lengthwise and wash to remove grit. Cut off the dark green ends and discard. Slice leek into thin ribbons.
Warm oil and melt butter in a large sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid over low heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add leek and cook until very soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine and half the lovage. Season with pepper.
Raise heat to high. Once wine begins to simmer, add mussels and cover. Cook until all the mussels have opened, no more than 3 to 5 minutes. Shake the pan to encourage the process. Sprinkle with the remaining lovage. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 appetizer servings or 2 main course servings.