Remember how I said my boyfriend hated mussels? Well, New Zealand changed his mind.
New Zealand green-lipped mussels are a rare restaurant treat here in California. Traveling to their native land was a golden opportunity to eat as many as possible. We were traveling with a critical mass of mussel-lovers–myself included–so someone would always order a big pile of them every time we saw them on a menu. They were always steamed in some flavorful winey liquid, served in towering white bowls. The mussels themselves were enormous, with glossy black shells edged in gemstone green, as if they’d been dipped in dye. The meat was tender and pale orange, with the faintly musky ocean flavor that makes good mussels so intriguing. Four or five of us would always end up squabbling over the last shell or two in the bowl.
When Sam said he wanted to try a mussel, I was surprised. He’d been so stubbornly opposed to anything with two shells, and wrinkled his nose whenever I suggested he give them a try. And here he was asking to taste New Zealand mussels, the largest, squishiest, freakiest-looking mussels I’d ever seen. He ate his first mussel hesitantly, chewing slowly, as if expecting to find something in it that would put him off. But it didn’t, and he reached for another one. And another one. And another one. At the end of our last restaurant meal on the trip, he looked me square in the eye and said, “I think I like mussels now.”
I can’t even express how excited this makes me. Mussels are one of my favorite foods, and to be able to share that love with the person I love is thrilling. They’re incredibly quick and simple to make–just put them in a pot with a small amount of flavorful liquid, then cover and steam them until they open. And they’re also one of the most economical seafood choices around. Farmed mussels are sustainable, plentiful, and available year-round, and even good-quality mussels from a fancy store–which are the only ones you should buy–won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
To celebrate Sam’s newfound love of mussels, and as an early Valentine’s Day treat, I steamed some mussels in a broth of leeks, garlic, white wine, and tomato paste. It was a lovely romantic meal for two, light yet indulgent. We had a great time pulling nuggets of mussel meat from the shells with our fingers. And then at the bottom of the bowl, a treat: the broth from the mussel pot, rich and salty from the juices the mussels gave off as they steamed, with a low spicy thrum of tomato in the background. We dunked bread in the broth until the bread was gone, then picked up our bowls and drank what was left. (Another reason to cook mussels at home–try that at a restaurant, and you’ll get stared at.)
Steamed Mussels in White Wine Tomato Broth (serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as an appetizer)
Note: Buy the mussels the day you want to cook them. If you need to hold them for a couple hours before cooking, place them in a shallow dish lined with a damp paper towel and refrigerate. Wait to rinse and debeard them until right before you cook them.
2 lb farmed mussels
2 tbsp olive oil, unsalted butter, or a combination
1 small leek, white and light green parts only, washed and diced
3 large or 5-6 small garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp crushed red chile flakes, or to taste
1 cup dry white wine
Zest of 1 medium lemon, finely grated
Handful of chopped fresh parsley
Crusty bread for serving
Inspect the mussels, and discard any with cracked or broken shells. If any mussels are slightly open, give them a gentle tap; if they don’t close within a few seconds, throw them out. Rinse the mussels under cold running water, and scrub with a damp cloth or a stiff brush to remove any lingering grit or dirt. If any of the mussels have their beards still attached, pull them out–you may need to use a kitchen towel to help you grip.
In a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat olive oil and/or butter over medium heat. Add leek, garlic, tomato paste, chile flakes, and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes, or until the leeks are translucent. Add wine and lemon zest, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil.
Add the mussels to the pot, and immediately cover with a lid. Give the pan a gentle shake, then let the mussels steam for 3-5 minutes, or until they’ve all opened. If any mussels don’t open after about 8 minutes, remove them from the pot and throw them away.
Remove the pot from the heat, and stir in the parsley. Ladle the mussels into large bowls, along with their broth. Serve with crusty bread to sop up the broth.