Yesterday, I took it upon myself to try to recreate this dish at home, without relying on recipes. I love reading recipe books (whether I'm actually cooking or just wanting to lose myself in some tasty writing) but I do find that if I've committed to making such-and-such a meal, I tend to cling to the recipe, going back to check and recheck every step lest I let whatever I'm labouring over burn/collapse/go lumpy/have A.N Other disaster. In other words, I get The Fear.
Yesterday, I decided, The Fear wasn't getting a look in. We went down to Northcote Road to visit the lovely fish van (for me) and the cheese shop of untold delight (for Matt). Armed with a kilo of mussels, I hit the kitchen (with considerable force, if the mess I have left is anything to go by).
I knew I wanted the mussels to be in a fragrant broth, so I would need a very liquid base, and coconut milk seemed the obvious choice. Into this, I decided to whisk in a paste of ingredients which correspond to the eminent John Torode's '4 pillars of Thai food', which, I have no doubt, will be brought up on every series of Masterchef until the end of time. These four key components are sour, sweet, salty and hot. The coconut milk would provide a real sweetness, so I wanted to focus on the other three flavours in the paste I whizzed up.
Anyone who knows me and the way I cook will know that I am of the opinion that everything is made better with the addition of citrus fruit, so my Thai paste started with a big kick of lime and lemon. I also added a red chilli (bought from the market and much fierier than its smaller, supermarket-bought brothers), a clove of garlic, lemongrass, a lump of ginger (and then a second lump for good luck) and a big lug of Nam Pla fish sauce. All of this was blitzed together in the Magimix, then whisked into my coconut milk. More chilli was flung in at the last minute for some extra pizazz, and then the whole lot was poured over the mussels to cook.
Below is the recipe with quantites and the like. It is actually very simple, but I am nonetheless proud of it, as there was no burning or collapsing, no attack of the unexplained lumps, the flavours all came together nicely, and all the recipe books remained neatly on their shelf. From now on I shall try to conquer The Fear more often, trust in my palate, and experiment with recipes, rather than always following them religiously. There you go - a real September resolution for you.
Fragrant Thai Mussels
(Serves 2 as a large first course, or a main course with chips or a crunchy salad)
1 stick of lemongrass
2 fiery red chillis (a lot of the heat infuses through the coconut milk, so you're in no danger of blowing your head off)
2 walnut sized knobs of ginger (peeled)
Juice and zest of 2 limes
Juice of 1 smallish lemon
1 clove of garlic
3 tbsps Nam Pla fish sauce
A small handful of coriander
500ml coconut milk
1 kilo mussels
- Remove the tough, woody outer layer of the lemongrass and chop it roughly.
- Chop the coriander, garlic, chilli and ginger and add these to your food processor with the lemongrass and lime zest.
- Blitz together and slowly add the lime juice, lemon juice and Nam Pla.
- Keep whizzing together until you've got a smoothish paste - add a splash of water if you need to.
- Check over your mussels. If any are open, tap the edge of the shell sharply with your finger. They should slowly close of their own accord. If they don't budge, discard them.
- If any of your mussels have dark greyish green fibres protruding from the side of the shell, don't worry. These are their 'beards', and while they're not exactly great eating, they are certainly not poisonous. Grab them in your fingers, or a pair of tweezers, and pull them sharply upwards towards the opening of the shell. It might take a bit of brute force, but they should come out!
- Rinse the mussels quickly in cold water to remove any bits of sand or grit that might be on the shells, then put them into a large, deep saucepan or stockpot.
- Whisk your nicely blitzed curry paste into the coconut milk until it's all combined. I use coconut powder, mixed with 500 ml almost boiling water. If your coconut milk is from a can, heat it in a saucepan and whisk in the paste while on the heat - don't let it boil though.
- Pour this mixture over the mussels, turn the heat up high, cover with a lid and wait for the liquid to come to the boil.
- Stir the mussels around in the liquid and turn it down to a gentle simmer.
- Leave them covered for another 4 minutes, or until most if not all of the shells are open, then ladle them into bowl and pour the cooking liquid over the top.
- Discard any closed shells as you eat them, and don't worry about getting hot broth all up your sleeves - getting messy is all part of the fun.