One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Pukka Dinner: Grilled Mussels with a Lemony Herb Vinaigrette

Today, I'd like to talk to you about a man called Jamie Oliver. You may have heard of him. He's a famous British chef known for his simple, ingredient-driven cuisine, his efforts to make school lunches healthier and his numerous restaurants, books and television shows. My first exposure to Oliver came at the age of eighteen, when I stumbled across his BBC show "The Naked Chef". While that name proved to be unnecessarily titillating (Oliver did not, perhaps regrettably, cook in the nude), I was nevertheless captivated by his easy charm, the endless parade of friends through his house, and his frequent use of bewildering Britishisms like "pukka". Just read one of his recipes and you'll see what I mean. Come to think of it, he may be the reason for my weakness for blonds and accents! Girlish daydreams aside, though, I continued watching Oliver's shows for many years because he made cooking seem so practical, easy and fun. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I started cooking seriously because of him.

Perhaps my favorite of all of Oliver's shows was called Jamie At Home, wherein he picked fresh produce from his bountiful garden and cooked it right on the spot. In one episode that has stuck with me for all these years, he built a fire in a hole in the ground, placed an aluminum pan full of shellfish over it and covered the pan with a bowl to trap the smoke in. Within minutes, the shellfish was cooked. He simply inverted the bowl, tossed in lemon juice, olive oil, chopped herbs and the shellfish, called it salad, and started munching on it where he sat. Until then, I had only ever encountered mussels in stuffy French restaurants, where they are usually served with dainty white wine sauces and tiny forks, and it had never occurred to me that they could so easily be cooked at home, let alone on the grill. It turns out that mussels are perfect for entertaining as they cook very quickly (5 minutes!) and are a cheap (I pay 5$ per bag!) way to have an elegant, fun and interactive dinner.  I've been preparing them simply steamed in white wine for many years, but last week, I finally got the chance to recreate Oliver's recipe. It's every bit as good as I had imagined it would be. Grilled mussels have a wonderful smokiness and make a nice change from hot dogs and hamburgers. I encourage you to give them a try.

Grilled Mussels with a Lemony Herb Vinaigrette
I prefer using farmed mussels as they have no grit in them and the farming conditions are environmentally sustainable. Covering the grill and using wood chips gives the mussels a nice smoky taste, but both are completely optional. The mussels will cook just as well on an uncovered grill. You can prepare all manner of shellfish in this way - I remember Oliver used a mixture of shrimp, mussels, clams and razor clams. For the herbs, you can use any or all of mint, basil or dill. The shellfish can be cooked ahead of time and chilled before serving. 2 lbs of mussels serve 2 people as a main course or 4 as an appetizer. 

2 lbs (1 kg) mussels
Generous handful of chopped fresh herbs
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
Two handfuls of cedar or hickory wood chips, soaked for 15 minutes (optional)

1. Soak the mussels for a couple of minutes in water. Pull off any stringy protrusions and discard any mussels that are open or cracked.

2. Light your grill. When it's ready, scatter the wood chips (if using) under the grill grate. Put the mussels on the grate in a single layer and cover the grill.

3. The mussels will open when they are cooked, which should take no more than 5-6 minutes. Discard any mussels that haven't opened after this time.

4. Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, herbs and salt and pepper, and drizzle this mixture over the mussels. Serve with some bread and a green salad.