Mussels with Parmesan

As we often do on a Thursday afternoon we bought a kilo of mussels from the producer’s van that comes from Bouzigues twice a week. Wondering how to cook them I was leafing through Patience Gray’s wonderful book, Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades and Apulia, when I found her recipe for cozze al forno, stuffed mussels in the oven, with breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and parmesan.  This gave us an idea which with some small changes to the original recipe became our supper.

We cleaned the mussels and cooked them in a glass of white wine until they were all open.  While they were cooking we added chopped garlic and finely chopped fresh green pepper (from the garden) to some breadcrumbs.  When the mussels were cooked we removed the empty half of the shell, covered the mussels with the breadcrumb and pepper mix, poured some olive oil over each mussel and covered them with finely grated parmesan cheese.  We browned them under a hot grill and they were ready to eat.

A kilo of mussels probably would make a first course for four but we do like mussels a lot, so we ate a kilo between the two of us, followed by pasta with capers and anchovies.

Patience Gray also has a delicious Catalan dish of mussels with fresh tomatoes which I plan to try as soon as we have a few more ripe tomatoes in the garden.

(Sorry my photos are smaller than usual – I’m getting used to a new computer and hoping I’ll get the hang of it very soon!)

Mussels, and cherries too

Two treats today, one seasonal and one we often enjoy at all times of the year.  We bought a kilo of cherries from a stall in the centre of Magalas.  The cherry season is so short – the man whose tree they came from said he would be there again tomorrow but then his crop would be finished.

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Sometimes I make clafoutis with cherries – almost exactly a year ago I put a recipe on the Food from the Mediterranean blog – but usually they’re so delicious that we eat them all raw, just as they are.

Mussels are an all-year-round delight and today we ate them cooked in one of our favourite ways – with chorizo, tomato and red wine sauce, and with one of our first red onions from the garden this year chopped raw on top once they were cooked.

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For this dish, the mussels are cooked with a glass of red, rather than white, wine until the shells have all opened.  Meanwhile we prepare a tomato sauce with onions, garlic, chopped chorizo and another glass of red wine to pour over the shells once they have been drained.  All this needs is some chopped sweet (or red) onion if available, some crusty bread and another glass (or two) of red wine.

Mussels again

As it happened, on the first really hot day of the year, with temperatures over 30 C, I departed a little from the Mediterranean and went further north for my inspiration for cooking mussels, adding cream which would never be used by people making local food in the Languedoc.  I just fancied a bit of a change.  We bought a kilo of larger mussels, sold for stuffing, which meant we had 28 mussels, cooked in the usual way in a glass of white wine until all the shells had opened.  I discarded the half of the shell without the mussel in it and put a teaspoon of crème fraîche into which I had added some chopped garlic, chopped oregano and ground pepper into each shell.  I sprinkled some fresh breadcrumbs and some grated Cantal cheese (any hard cheese would work well) over them all and put them under the grill for five minutes or so until the cheese had browned.  Then they were ready to eat.  These 28 made a good lunch for two of us, with bread and salads, and they would make a first course for four, or they could be served as part of a selection of tapas.

mussels with cream and cheese

A simple lunch and more spring flowers

mussels

Mussels bought from the van that comes to the village from Bouzigues, the bigger ones – à farcir (for stuffing) – cooked in a glass of white wine until the shells open.  Discard the empty half of the shell and add to each mussel a teaspoonful of fresh breadcrumbs, some chopped fresh garlic and some chopped oregano.  Grind some black pepper and pour some olive oil over them and put them under a hot grill for a few minutes, until the breadcrumbs start to brown.  Serve with lemon quarters and a glass of white wine.

Up on the hill above the village this morning I found this old shelter built into a wall next to an olive tree.  It would have given a goatherd or a shepherd refuge from the hot summer sun or the cold winter rain.

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A natural death?  I suspect not – I think this snail shell may be part of the remains of someone’s picnic lunch.

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A lovely red and white wild sweet pea, growing against the wall near the shelter.

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And a wild salsify flower, tragopogon porrifolius.

And mussels again….

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In the sunlight on a chilly morning in the centre of the village there was a queue forming for oysters, clams and mussels long before the van arrived.  We bought a kilo of mussels for lunch.  We cooked them in a glass of white wine while separately sautéing some sliced shallots and pieces of poitrine fumée (smoked bacon).  When the mussels were cooked we added the shallots and bacon and put chopped parsley and garlic over them to serve with a glass of white wine and crusty bread.

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Double mussels

With the mussels we bought from the coquillages van on Saturday morning, we made two very different dishes over the weekend.  The first was an old favourite, pumpkin and mussel soup, the recipe for which is on the Food from the Mediterranean blog.

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And the second was a new experiment which worked – marinated mussels.  I removed about 750 grams of cooked mussels from their shells, added a chopped sweet onion, a finely chopped piment d’Espelette (you could use a chilli pepper if you like hot food), a glass of white wine, the juice of half a lemon and a little salt, not too much as the mussels are often quite salty.  I left the mussels to marinate overnight and then served them as a first course with crusty bread (and, separately, the few remainders of our own olives).

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Spicy mussels

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Inspired by my recent attempts to make gambas al pil pil I wondered this morning after the coquillage van had been to the village whether there was a similar dish made with mussels.  I googled mejillones al pil pil but didn’t find a recipe, so I went ahead my own way.  Lo Jardinièr cleaned and cooked the mussels and took them out of their shells while I roughly chopped two dried paprika peppers, one fresh one and four cloves of garlic.  I heated these in olive oil in an earthenware dish on the hob, added some sprigs of thyme and then the mussels for about five minutes.  They were still sizzling when I put them on the table for lunch, with this lovely crusty paillasse bread.

A day out in the sun

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These are the oyster beds in the Etang de Thau, a sea-water lagoon where shell fish production is the main activity.  The mussel and oyster frames support strings of shells which are glued on when the shell fish are young.  They are then lowered into the water to eat and grow.  These rows of frames stretch from Marseillan, past Mèze and on to Bouzigues (to the left of this picture) and across the unpolluted water towards Sète. The water really is unpolluted – it’s the only place in France where shell fish is produced that doesn’t have to go into purification tanks before sale, a status that is zealously guarded by the producers here. And best of all, this is a sustainable method of food production which doesn’t use up the sea’s resources as other fish and sea food can.  It’s a major industry in the area, rivalled only by the Picpoul vines which grow so well along the shores of the lagoon.  The name Picpoul means ‘sting the lips’ and this white wine does have a fresh, sharp quality. By some miracle of nature, Picpoul wine is an excellent accompaniment for sea food.  I’ve noticed this convenient marrying of flavours of local products with local wine in other areas, Cahors red wine and lamb from the Causse de Limogne, for example.

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The industrial area of Mèze, with the shell fish frames and Sète in the background…and no, that’s not the remains of our lunch in that huge pile of oyster shells!

There’s a beach at Mèze, although you wouldn’t want to swim there….

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the port is pretty, and full of pleasure boats even in winter:

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It was hot in the sun and we found a table for lunch outside at one of our favourite restaurants, Le Sanboulou, with more or less the view in this picture.  The excellent menu du jour (only 13.50 euros) gave us tapas – mussels in chilli sauce, artichoke hearts, marinaded sardines and battered squid rings – followed by pasta with scallops and gambas (large prawns) in pistou (basil and garlic sauce), and homemade tiramisu for dessert.  Of course, I had a glass of Picpoul too!

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st jaques   gambas

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New ideas with felafel and with mussels

One of my earliest food memories is of felafel.  Not long after my family arrived in Libya to live in Benghazi when I was four we were returning from a trip in the countryside and driving through the town (Benghazi was quite a small town in the 1950s) when my father said ‘I can smell felafel’.  My parents knew these deep-fried balls of spicy ground chickpeas or broad beans, having lived in Egypt before I was born.  My father parked the car and we all followed the delicious smell down a side street near the souk to an open-fronted shop with a huge vat of hot oil in the window, filled with falafel.  Sold as street food in a paper bag, these were my first taste, the memory that comes back to me whenever I cook them at home – it’s a very tempting smell.

I like to make felafel with a big bunch of chopped fresh coriander leaves as well as ground coriander.  But I’ve never been successful at growing coriander and it’s difficult to find the leaves here, except occasionally in tiny expensive packets in supermarkets.  So today I thought I would improvise.  We have a lot of green piments d’Espelette, or paprika peppers, which won’t ripen now so we’ve picked them.  You could use chillies if you like hot food, but I don’t so I put two of these, one green and one red, in the food processor with a roughly chopped onion and two cloves of garlic and processed until they were very finely chopped.  I added 150 grams of dried chick peas which I’d soaked overnight and processed these until they too were very finely chopped, then added a dessert spoonful of salt, a tablespoonful of ground coriander and a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda (this last is optional but it does make the texture lighter).

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I formed the mixture into balls about the size of a walnut and deep-fried them in sunflower oil.  Olive oil doesn’t get hot enough for deep-frying.  When they were nicely browned I took them out and put them to drain on kitchen paper and then onto a Moroccan plate.  They’re best served freshly cooked and still warm, like the street food they are, but they will keep and can be served with mezes – yoghurt, hummus, tomato salad, olives….and so on.  I remember some years ago eating them in Amsterdam, from a window open onto the street rather like my original Benghazi memory, in flatbreads with pickled vegetables, hummus and tahina sauce – wonderful!

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And the mussels….

Trying again to use up some of the late-harvest paprika peppers waiting for me in the kitchen and on plants on the balconies, I made a variation of a dish we’ve had before many times.  But this time instead of herbs I used very finely chopped chorizo peppers, some green, some just turning red (too late!), mixed with chopped garlic and fresh breadcrumbs as a stuffing for open half mussel shells (the mussels had been cooked first in a large pan until they all opened).

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I’d intended to put them in the fan oven, but that didn’t heat up and seems to have been the cause of the blown fuse that went this morning (a problem that we’ll have to face sometime soon).  Instead, I poured a little olive oil over them all and put them under the fan grill for five minutes or so until the breadcrumbs were crisp.

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Moules farcies…..à la sètoise?

I’ve eaten moules farcies à la sètoise,  mussels stuffed with minced pork, many times in restaurants as it’s one of my favourites and I’ve also eaten it at friends’ houses, but until today we’ve never plucked up the courage to make it ourselves.  I’ve added the question mark to the title because our friends here, 50 kilometres from Sète, would say that this recipe isn’t necessarily confined to Sète and would call it simply moules farcies, but it is known for its connection with Sète where it is often served with pasta rather than rice.  Having decided that today was the day we were going to try this apparently quite difficult recipe, I read some of the recipes in André Soulier’s wonderful La cuisine secrète du Languedoc-Roussillon and then went to the village shop just as the shell fish van from Bouzigues was arriving in the place outside.  We had lots of advice from friends in the shop and – importantly – about how to open the mussels from the man who was selling them.  Somehow we put all these different ideas into a recipe of our own.  Lo Jardinièr did the labour-intensive work of opening all the mussels while I made the stuffing.  The full recipe is on the Food from the Mediterranean blog, but here are some pictures as a taster.

Opening the mussels was fiddly, but not as difficult as we’d expected:

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The advantage of this method, recommended by the man who sells the mussels, of cutting around between the two halves of the shell and through the muscle which causes the mussel to open when cooked, is that the two halves then don’t need to be tied together once they’re stuffed as many recipes suggest.  This was something which has put me off making this dish in the past as it sounded as though it would take so long!

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When all the mussels were open I stuffed each one with a spoonful of the meat mixture and closed it tightly, then packed them all in the bottom of a large pan.  I used my Spanish sartén which was just the right size to hold them all in the sauce while they cooked.

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And was it worth spending the time on a Saturday morning doing this?  Well, we certainly thought so.  The mussels and sauce were at least as good as, if not better than, any we’ve had in restaurants, even in Sète!

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