Food writer and cooking instructor Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two who recently navigated a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, Fish on Fridays, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
Today, Christine finds inspiration for an autumn mussel dish in the bar line at a cocktail party.
Mussels, Booze, and the Pie Rule
Writing about food is a real cocktail party game changer.
I used to have to tell people I was the executive editor of the product testing section of a pretty big computer networking magazine. The typical response was "Ohhh.... how interesting." That semi-compliment was routinely followed by only slightly veiled attempts to scan the crowd for someone in a more intriguing line of work.
Now I barely make it to the drinks table without being pulled into a conversation about foraging for mushrooms, abysmal school lunches, or the best combination of ingredients for a quick, fall mussel dish.
"When it comes to beer, I strictly follow the pie rule," said one of my husband’s colleagues at a departmental gathering last weekend. We were chatting about recipes I had in the queue for this column, exploring which fall beer would make an interesting base for a steamy pot of mussels on a wet, cold autumn day.
I suggested locally brewed pumpkin ale.
He curled his nose and informed me that he could not drink any beer made of ingredients that could also be served in a dessert pie. He’s British, and, I gather, also a bit of a purist about what he considers real ale.
I got his point, though. Beer is beer. And pie is pie.
But hard apple cider has ties to both.
Hard cider used to be the most popular drink in the United States. For the English colonists who brought over scads of apple seeds and ended up with tons of apple trees, the fermented drink proved safer to take even at breakfast (John Adams was said to have started the day that way) than potentially contaminated well water. Johnny Appleseed helped spread the love of cider as he moved west and planted the trees that would provide the raw material for the golden, refreshingly bubbly drink.
Prohibition killed widespread hard cider distribution. While beer made a fast après-temperance comeback due in large part to the rise of quick-brewing techniques brought here by German immigrants, cider did not see its American resurgence (it was always widely available in the U.K.) until the microbrew movement started in the 1990s and imports of popular English brands started making their way to liquor and grocery store shelves. Americans reportedly drank 15.5 million gallons of the stuff last year.
So in our party chitchat, we moved away from beer and ran with the concept of using cider in my mussels.
Farmed mussels uniformly get the green light from sustainable seafood-rating organizations because, of all the aquaculture schemes practiced, mussel farming is pretty benign, causing very little environmental disruption. The mussels use their beards -- actually threads made of iron deposits that these filter feeders pull from sea water -- to attach themselves to the ropes that farmers suspend in the ocean.
British chef and sustainable seafood advocate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his The River Cottage Fish Book (co-authored with Nick Fisher) outlines a simple formula for flavoring mussels.
It goes pretty much like this:
2 tablespoons fat + 1/2 cup aromatics + 2 pounds mussels + 1/2 cup booze + a glug of cream + 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs
In the recipe concocted over cocktails, our fat was to be rendered from applewood-smoked bacon; our aromatics, a combination of chopped onion, fennel, apple, and celery root; the hard cider as the sauce; and, a bit of cream to round out the tart edges (a more precise recipe is below).
Good crusty bread for sopping up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl is a given.
Now if you’ll excuse me. I’ve got another cocktail party to attend. I’m hoping to bump into someone at the bar who knows a bit about bluefish.
Fun fact about mussels: Seeing as they all have beards, how do you tell a boy mussel from a girl mussel? The girls are the pinkish-coral ones and the boys are the white ones.
Mussels in Hard Apple Cider
When making steamed mussels, I like to chop the aromatics small enough, so they either nestle in the shell with the meat or can easily crowd onto a soup spoon for an interesting mouthful. The cream is optional, but don’t skip the fat at the start. Mussels are naturally low in saturated fat, so I bet you can afford the splurge.
Serves one as a main, two as a starter
2 slices of applewood smoked bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons diced white onion
2 tablespoons diced apple
2 tablespoons diced fennel
2 tablespoons diced celeriac/celery root
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
3/4 cup dry hard cider (I tested this recipe with both Crispin Bare Naked Organic Hard Apple Cider and Julian Hard Cider)
2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: Like Mother, Like Fish Stock.
Photos by Christine Rudalevige.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer, culinary instructor at Stonewall Kitchen, and mother of two who always fits in three squares day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.