I couldn’t look a mussel in the beard for years, because against better advice from a fellow diner when I was young and unwise, I pried open a tightly closed one and ate it. I regretted my decision for at least a week. Now, though, they’re one of my favourite shellfish. Mussels are full of flavour, they’re British and they’re as cheap as chips (and go rather well with a big bowlful of them).
Packed with vitamins and minerals and with as much protein as a beef steak but low in fats and carbs, mussels make a fabulous meal. To bulk them out and to add extra texture I’ve cooked them here with fregola.
This is a tiny, round, nutty-tasting pasta made in Sardinia from durum wheat, dried and then lightly toasted. It’s delicious and well worth seeking out, although you can substitute giant couscous if that’s easier to get hold of.
Although the old adage that you shouldn’t eat shellfish unless there’s an R in the month isn’t strictly true any more, they are best eaten seasonally as they spawn in late spring to summer, which reduces their meat content. Grab some while you can.
Mussels with Fregola
1 kg mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
2 tbs olive oil
3 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
Pinch of salt
4 to 6 large cloves of garlic (to taste), peeled and finely sliced
150ml dry white wine
15g chopped parsley
Grated zest ½ lemon and a squeeze of its juice
Scrub the mussels and pull off their beards, discarding any which have broken shells or stay open when tapped on your work surface. Drain in a sieve. Prepare the onions, garlic and parsley.
Cook the fregola in salted water according to the packet instructions – mine took around 10 minutes – until just cooked with still with a bite. When it’s ready, drain and keep warm.
While it’s cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan. It needs to be big enough to take all the mussels and still have space for them to steam. Gently fry the onions, sprinkled with a little salt, until soft and tinged with gold, about 10 minutes. Stir from time to time so they don’t catch. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more.
Tip the mussels into the onion pan, pour in the wine and clamp on a lid. Cook for three or four minutes, shaking occasionally, until the mussels have opened. Stir through the cooked fregola.
Remove from the heat so the mussels don’t continue to cook and add the parsley, lemon zest and a good spritz of juice. Check the seasoning and scoop into bowls, discarding any mussels which haven’t opened. Eat straight away, with crusty bread to mop up the juices.