Recently, my husband signed up for the monthly beer club at The Rare Barrel, a local outfit specializing in sour beer. This style of beer is crafted to maximize the acidic tang of wild fermentation–the same process that makes sauerkraut taste sour–while minimizing bitterness. The result is a brew that is light, tangy, and easy to drink. Even I, an avowed beer-hater, like this stuff. So when Sam suggested having a few friends over to help us finish this month’s beer-stash, my thoughts immediately turned to cooking with it. Specifically, mussels.
Of all the ways to cook mussels at home, it’s hard to beat simply steaming them in some flavorful liquid. For most of my mussel-eating life, that meant white wine with lots of garlic. But that’s far from the only way to go. I suspected that the light, acidic qualities of a sour beer would make it an ideal swap for dry white wine when steaming shellfish. And I was right.
Instead of the usual garlic saute, I started by sweating diced leek tops and fennel in garlic-infused oil. I threw in some chile flakes, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf, then added the beer. After steaming the mussels open in their beer-y sauna, I scooped them out of the pot and finished the broth with a few chunks of butter for richness and heft, plus a dollop of mustard for spice. (I left the aromatics in, but you could strain them out of the broth if you prefer, since both leek tops and fennel bulbs can be tough.) Then I poured the enriched broth over the mussels, added a handful of chopped parsley, and set the bowl on the table next to a loaf of spelt bread–sourdough, natch.
Although I used sour beer here, this is really a “mussels steamed with some sort of booze” recipe. If you’re a beer drinker, any good-quality ale will do. If you don’t do beer, try hard cider (preferably on the dry side) or good old white wine. And, honestly, “good-quality” is in the taste buds of the beholder. If you like it enough to drink it, go ahead and cook with it!
I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.
The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.
Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.
But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.