My grandfather used to tell of long summer afternoons eating shellfish. He and his mate would each bundle up a salt shaker and a stout knife in a clean hanky, tie it to his head, and breaststroke to a rocky outcrop off the coast of Western Australia. There they would scramble up and collect oysters, then spend the afternoon shucking and slurping, slurping and shucking, throwing the shells back into the sea as the waves lapped at their feet.
I think of that story whenever we eat mussels, oysters being in short supply in our house.
Yesterday we bought a bag of bay mussels. They were fat and succulent and smelled of the sea. We demolished them in minutes. As long as your mussels are fresh, it takes almost no effort to make something absolutely delicious. If they're not fresh, don't buy them.
The following is how to make spaghetti and mussels for a family in which some people love mussels and others barely tolerate them. If you are in the privileged position of eating with civilized people – mussel-lovers all – skip the spaghetti and tomato sauce bit, throw the parsley into the mussel pot, and serve your mussels with fresh white bread instead to sop up all the lovely briny juices.
- 1½ - 2 kilos mussels
Bring a large pot of water to the boil.
Discard any mussels that are cracked, or open and refuse to close when you tap them. Scrub and de-beard the mussels. If this feels cruel, just think of the way your great-grandmother would rip the head off a chicken and realise how squeamish you are – then get over it.
Warm half the garlic with the chilli (if you're using it) in a drizzle of olive oil in a wide skillet. Add the tomatoes and leave to simmer gently.
Add the spaghetti to the boiling water, and cook for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on its thickness.
While the spaghetti cooks, warm the rest of the garlic in a drizzle of olive oil in a very large pot. Add the white wine, then the mussels – no more than two deep, so you may have to do this in two batches – and clap the lid on. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes. Remove the open mussels to a large bowl, then cook the remaining mussels for another minute or so. Remove the rest of the opened mussels to the bowl, and, if there are any mussels still remaining closed, discard them. Pop a saucepan lid or dinner plate on the bowl to keep the mussels warm while you finish things up.
Add at least half a cup of the mussel cooking liquid to the tomato sauce, or all of it if you love it as much as I do. Add the parsley.
Drain the pasta, and toss through the tomato sauce.
Serve the spaghetti, with the mussels in their separate bowl for people to help themselves. I usually flick a heap into my spaghetti, then eat; while my four-year-old fastidiously nibbles at her obligatory two mussels, wincing all the way (then announces she "really quite likes them". Grrr.)
Don't forget to put out a big bowl for the shells!
This is enough for two to four adults, depending how much the kids eat.
(Local: mussels, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, spaghetti, wine, parsley, even the bread if you use it.)