Steamed Mussels for an Endless Winter

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Winter. Sigh.

Is it not yet time to say goodbye to winter? The first day of spring was last week, after all. Isn’t is supposed to be nice outside already? In Toronto, winters tend to be very ugly: a typical Toronto winter features steely gray skies and damp, chilly air. There’s usually not much snow, but whatever advantage this might bring is made irrelevant by the fact that there’s even less sunshine. It’s a recipe for seasonal depression (but, hooray for vitamin D!). Despite their ugliness, though, Toronto winters tend to be short. We don’t usually see temperatures below zero until well into December, and, by March, the weather warms and things begin to bloom again. After growing up enduring Edmonton’s long and deeply frozen winters, which seem to start with the beginning of the school year and stick around right until those three very hot weeks in July people call “summer,” I’ve become spoiled by early springtime in Toronto.

Except, of course, for this year. On the first day of spring, the sky celebrated by dumping a metric butt load of snow. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it snowed even more the next day. As much as I’ve grown appreciative of any snow in Toronto, I’ve definitely had enough of it by now. The snow and cold is a serious style cramper, for lots of reasons. It requires lots of layers, the warmest of which are thick and itchy but totally necessary if you want to maintain a comfortable temperature. It makes leaving the house to go to work or socialize that much harder to do. And, it makes eating well something of a challenge.

I try to eat seasonally as much as I can, less for environmental reasons (which are good reasons!) and more because out-of-season food tastes really bad. January’s metallic-tasting tomatoes and flavourless radishes are just not worth the effort of putting on my parka and trudging through a blizzard to get to the store, in my humble opinion. Of course, when you’re trying to get a food-and-knitting blog off the ground in February, the fact that there’s less to eat poses something of a challenge. I mean, I want the things I share to be worth sharing, you know? If I post it here, it has to be blog-worthy. Fortunately for us, and despite the cold, there are mussels.

The first time I ever ate mussels was with Keith, shortly after the start of our relationship. Armed with crusty bread, some alliums and a bottle of beer, Keith turned a kilo of bivalves into some of the most tender and flavourful things I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a great awakening for me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s a good thing we only had a kilo to split between us, because I’m not sure I’d have been able to stop stuffing myself otherwise.

(A kilo of mussels is not too much food for two people, before you ask. They’re pretty meaty, to be sure, but their weight comes mostly from their shells.)

Since then, we’ve made and eaten a lot of mussels. They’re the meal we turn to most often for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, the weekend, and, well, week days. There’s no occasion to fancy or too humble for mussels, and they’re a sure-fire way to impress people with our culinary prowess. The thing is, though, mussels are easy, so easy, to prepare. What’s more, they’re cheap. They’re so cheap, in fact, that I sometimes wonder why we don’t eat them more often. Best of all, they’re seasonal to the fall and winter, which means that I won’t end up with a drab plate that makes me begin to understand why some people don’t get excited about food. You can find them in supermarkets year round, but they’re in season from mid-October to mid-April. I think this is when they taste best.

So, in celebration of an extended winter, I’m sharing my recipe for steamed mussels with you. It’s not so much a recipe as it is a formula with changeable variables. Substitute the white wine for red, or beer, or port, or vermouth. If you can’t get fennel, add a splash of Pernod or leave it out all together. Add a bay leaf or some fresh thyme, if you have some on hand. No matter the variation, your mussels are bound to be delicious. Hopefully, they’ll make this long winter seem a little less bleak, too.

Steamed Mussels

Serves 2 as a main dish, and 3-4 as a starter

1KG live mussels

3 tbsp butter

1/2 fennel bulb, cored and sliced

1 small onion or large shallot, sliced

2-3 garlic cloves, sliced

A small bunch of parsley, stems reserved and leaves roughly chopped

1 cup white wine

Salt, to taste

Before you start cooking, check your mussels to see if they’re alive. Tap their shells on a hard surface until they start to close (if they’re coming from the cold, they might be a bit sluggish, so be patient). If they don’t close, or the shells are broken, discard the dead/dying mussel. Pull off and discard any beards. If your mussels look particularly sandy or dirty, be sure to soak them in cold water for an hour or so, which should remove any sand clinging to the insides of the shells (I usually skip this step… unless your mussels are coming right out of the sea, they’ve probably already been cleaned).

Next, melt the butter in a stock pot until it begins to foam. Then, add your sliced fennel, onion, garlic and parsley stalks and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables become translucent and a bit fragrant. It’s not a big deal if the vegetables brown a little, but, for the most part, we’re trying to preserve some of their crispness while opening up some of the flavour.

When your veg are cooked, add your white wine and boil over high heat. Once the wine is boiling vigorously, dump in your mussels and cover your stock pot. Shake the pot a few times to make sure the mussels cook evenly (wear oven mits and make sure you clamp down on that lid!), and, in 3 to 5 minutes, your dinner is ready.

Scatter chopped parsley leaves and a generous pinch of salt onto your mussels and serve with crusty bread, good wine, and a handsome dinner companion.

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