This recipe post was going to be based on an amazing and stupendous array of fish from Port Philip Bay in Melbourne. You see, everything was set…two dads with a couple of days off from their respective family, glorious late Autumn weather, a ‘hot’ fishing spot on Portarlington pier, an esky (that’s a mammoth Australian beer cooler) full of ice, Tiger beer and a cracking golden ale called ‘Minimum Chips’, fishing licenses up to date, 2 rods each with up to the minute line, tackle, squidgees and jigs, and the will and confidence of two fine fisherman. Everything went according to plan apart from, well…the fish. They were there, but just not interested in whatever a Dutchman and Englishman could throw their way.
An elderly couple next to us, whose level of conversation extended to a smile and a nod, decided to show us how to fish (and show us up at the same time). They were pulling out salmon, trevally, barracuda, marlin, Bluefin tuna, blue whale, ready-made meals for two…you name it they were catching it. I do think that they were a little more focussed than us because we were more interested in consuming ale and yapping with the passers-by: a Yorkshireman who claimed to be Aussie after being in Australia for 40 years but still called me ‘arkid’; a Vietnam veteran and his wife from Brisbane who were about to embark on world travels, some local geezer with 4 missing front teeth that created a kind of vortex when he spoke (kept talking about artificial reefs, balloons and Christmas trees for some reason), families, old codgers, dogs, cats and whoever would converse with us – any language accepted.
It was a great weekend, and although we were given one salmon by another fisherman who had ‘caught too much’ (rub it in why don’t you), caught two Banjo sharks (not as courageous a feat as it sounds) and a squid we thought that we better take something a bit more substantial back to Melbourne with us. And being in Portarlington there was only one thing; mussels. Portarlington is genuinely famous for its mussels, supplying many restaurants in Melbourne and far and wide. They have a wonderful taste, are a good size, and have a magical juicy plumpness to them.
This recipe is based on a simple garlicky tomato sauce which really works terrifically well with the mussels. Although simple I have worked on this version for a while. For example, it’s the subtlety of seasoning the sauce with the salty mussel liquor that really lifts this dish to another level.
Portarlington Mussels in Garlicky Tomato SaucePrint
- ■ 2kg mussels in shells | Any mussels will do, but as the title suggests I use Portarlington mussels here in Australia. Just make sure they are fresh.
- ■ 4 cloves garlic | Finely chopped – 3 for the tomato sauce and 1 for steaming the mussels.
- ■ 1 medium red onion | Finely chopped.
- ■ 3 tbsp. olive oil |
- ■ 250ml white wine | I use a Chardonnay. Not too expensive as it really is a waste to cook with great wine!
- ■ 2 tsp. tomato puree | Look for 100% tomato with no added salt.
- ■ 400g tin diced/ chopped tomatoes | Tinned tomatoes are great for sauces like this.
- ■ enough spaghetti or fettuccini for 4 | Dried is perfect.
- ■ 1 tbsp. olive oil |
- ■ seasoning black pepper |
- ■ 25g butter |
- ■ couple of sprigs coriander | For garnish – the flavour also complements the dish.
Firstly, prepare the mussels by soaking them in about 5 litres of cold water for an hour. Once the hour is up remove the beards (straggling bits that protrude from the shell) and check for any mussels that are open. Some mussels will close with a sharp tap, so only discard the ones that will not close. Soak again for about another half an hour. This soaking reduces the saltiness and enhances the culinary experience.
To prepare the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan (if you have one) on a low heat and then add the garlic, onion and sea salt. Stir and then let them ‘sweeten’ for about 6 or 7 minutes until soft and translucent. There should be no browning of the onion because this is not the taste we are aiming for. Now turn up the heat to medium-high and add 150ml of the white wine. Let this gurgle and bubble and reduce until it is syrupy. Add the tomato puree, stir and cook for about 30 seconds. Now add the tinned tomatoes, stir and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat immediately to low, cover the pan with a lid and gently simmer the sauce for 25 minutes. Once the time is up you can take it off the heat and leave until ready to use.
Put 3 litres of water in a pan, add a pinch of salt and put on a high heat. When boiling add the pasta, ensuring that you agitate it for the first 30 seconds so as to prevent the strands ‘sticking’ together. Cook as per the packet instructions, drain (reserve a tbsp. of cooking water), put back in the pan, and add 1tbsp of olive oil, the reserved cooking water and the back pepper. Stir and replace the lid. Leave aside until ready.
Now for the mussels: to a large pan/ stock pot add 10g of the butter and put the pan on a medium heat. Add the remaining garlic when the butter has melted and is bubbling and then add 100 ml of white wine. Add a tbsp. of water and then add the mussels. Cover the pan and cook the mussels on medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes until the mussels have opened. When cooked, drain the mussels through a colander and reserve the liquid. Now filter the reserved liquid (liquor) through a fine sieve. Pick the mussels from their shells and add to the tomato sauce. Reserve 12 (or whatever you heart desires) of the mussels in their shells for decorative purposes. Now gently heat the tomato sauce which now has those plump mussels in it. When simmering, add the rest of the butter (15g) and a tablespoon at a time add the reserved mussel liquor and stir. The liquor is the seasoning, so taste after every addition. When elated, serve the pasta, tomato sauce and mussels in their shells. Garnish with fresh coriander.
Assuming you have bought fresh mussels and have been diligent enough at the start to throw away any open mussels, then there is no need to discard any mussels after cooking. There is widespread advice to discard closed ones, which doesn’t make sense as if they were ‘off’ or ‘dead’ they would be open before cooking and you would have therefore already discarded them. As long as you have cooked them long enough there should be no problem. I just prise the closed mussels open and have had no issues.