Garlic Mussel Soup
We peruse our farmers market for local goat cheese, use our neighborhood herb garden, buy native flowers, we even feed our dog minced kangaroo! So it’s not fair to say that we don’t partake in Sydney’s impressive culinary offerings. But there’s no denying that, when eating at home, we so rarely take advantage of Sydney’s bounty of seafood.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, Australians have different names for common fish: Blue-eye cod is blue-eye trevalla, perch is jackass morwong (!), monkfish is stargazer. Secondly, I’m totally unfamiliar with most of the fish and crustaceans, like the Morton Bay Bug, john dory, ling, pippies, and jew fish (which is really delicious despite – or perhaps because of – its lack of politically correctness) – just to name a few.
But the real reason we avoid seafood, besides our unwholesome love for beef, is that I’m scared. I admit it. Fish kind of grosses me out. Give me a rabbit to debone or a chicken to butterfly and I’ll roll up my sleeves. But give me a pound of raw shrimp to shell and gagging will ensue.
Apart from the general nastiness of seafood, which I didn’t eat until adulthood (clam chowder, scallops and cod excepted – I am from Boston, after all), I’m not confident cooking fish. I have no idea when it’s done, a small detail that has resulted in my once serving a fillet raw in the middle. And not good, sushi-quality raw. Raw, I’m going to push this around my plate for a while, raw.
Despite all this, I consider myself a voracious seafood eater…within reason. Though I still avoid things I consider slimy – octopus, oysters and calamari – at a restaurant I often order fish because I know I never make it at home. My shortlist of favorite meals ever includes the spaghetti alle cozze e vongole served at a beach-side restaurant in Santa Sabina, Puglia; my uncle Bumpy’s legendary clam chowder; and a mussel soup from Ristorante Scaccomatto in Bologna.
That last dish – a near-constant off-the-menu special – is served with croutons and greens and has a broth so flavorful you can’t help but use your bread to sop up every last drop. Francesco’s mother orders it so regularly that by now the waiters hardly bother to ask for her first course order. And, despite the fact that she is decidedly not a soup sopper, she, too, wipes the bowl clean with her bread.
The other day I stumbled upon and immediately bookmarked an old blog post from The Wednesday Chef that reminded me of that luscious mussel soup. When, a few nights later, there was a chill in the air and we found ourselves with a last minute dinner party to plan, I had found the perfect occasion to make it.
We made a morning of it, grabbing Winnie, one of the many shared cars in our neighborhood, and heading down to Sydney’s famous Fish Markets. Indeed, we would once and for all utilize the fish mongers at our disposal: our dinner party would be based on seafood that even a picky seafood eater like me could handle (not to mention prepare) without losing my appetite. I’ll post the menu later, but first – after much dillydallying – I absolutely must share the soup recipe with you.
That little bookmark turned into an extraordinary dish, combining toasted bread, Gruyere, white wine, mussels, and their liquor to make an absolutely delicious (but not at all photogenic) first course. I followed the recipe to the letter (re: my fear of seafood) and wouldn’t change a thing. Saying it’s easy to prepare is an understatement: you just steam the mussels open with a cup of white wine and a cup of water, then fry some garlic in oil, add the steaming liquid to it then add a little slurry of egg yolk and vinegar. To serve, you simply place some toasted bread, grated Gruyere, the mussels and the broth in each bowl.
It’s food like this that is slowly but surely showing me the light. Seafood is my friend. I just have to embrace it. Or in this case, sop it up.
GARLIC MUSSEL SOUP
Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a smallish main course. It’s also brilliantly easy and quick to prepare, especially if you take the easy way out and, like me, buy prepackaged, scrubbed and debearded mussels.
2 pounds (1 kilo) mussels, scrubbed and debearded (or buy prepackaged, ready-to-cook)
1 cup white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 baguette, cut into 12 (half-inch) slices (or any good stale bread)
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup (4 ounces) Gruyère
1 to 2 teaspoons piment d’Espelette or chili powder (optional)
Place the mussels, wine and 1 cup of cold water in a large pot over medium high heat. Cover and cook until the shells open, 4 to 6 minutes. Strain the mussels into a colander, collecting all the juices in a large bowl placed below.
Heat the olive oil in the saucepan over low heat, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until pale gold, 3 to 4 minutes. Do not let brown.
Add the collected liquid to the garlic, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to very low, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the mussels from the shells (discard the shells). Toast the bread. Grate the cheese.
Remove the soup from the heat. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk, vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the soup and beat vigorously with a fork until the mixture gets foamy. Slowly pour the mixture back into the remaining soup, continuing to beat with a whisk.
To serve, divide the bread slices, 3 to 4 tablespoons of grated cheese and the mussels on the bottom of soup bowls, cover with soup and dust with piment d’Espelette or chopped parsely if desired.
Note: DO NOT add salt. The mussels release the perfect amount of their own resulting in a rather salty, briny dish. Also, serve with extra bread because this broth practically begs to be sopped up.