Do You Like Mussels ?

Having lived in Brussels for over thirteen years, the capital of Moules we as a family love them ! Mostly, served in a casserole, à la something or other , marinière, au vin blanc, au curry, au gousse d’ail ( garlic), à la crème and many other variations on a theme. Normally the portion is one kilo of mussels and served with, what else? Crispy French Fries!

I say the portion size is 1 kilo, which sounds a lot, but actually this is the weight with the shells, so in fact not that much meat.

When we first moved to Brussels about 40 + years ago, we discovered a small, almost hole in the wall type of restaurant with maybe 10 or 12 tables. No reservations and closed at 10 pm. The trick was to roll up and if you had to wait, you had to wait, outside, come rain or shine.( they now perhaps post Covid take reservations).

Of course they serve other foods along with Moules, but it is predominantly Moules. The very first time we ate there, was , of course after a Rugby match….. Brussels British versus ? I don’t remember. We were very hungry, so we ordered a starter of Moules, followed by steak frites, followed by Crêpe Soufflé, which had to be ordered well in advance. The waiter did indeed give us the most amazed look and then we understood! NO ONE in their right minds would order all of this, and Belgians did not do “Doggy Bags”.

We learnt very quickly and it soon became one of our favourite casual haunts. One of our favourites was the mussels cooked in white wine, cream and lots of garlic. The restaurant was manned by almost characters of real people, gnarled, wrinkled and overweight, hairnet on hair and a quick smoke outside the door and with a take it or leave it attitude. And to top it off, and gentleman of Asian origin would occasionally open a trap door in the floor, gather up the dirty Moules pans and disappear back under to wash them.

Himself has taken to cooking on a Tuesday. This is post Lockdown as it is my golf day. On Monday night he wondered what he should cook. I commented that I had 2 kilo of mussels arriving the next day. That spurred him on but not to cook the normal steamed in a pan pan with wine, garlic tomatoes etc. He scoured my books and came up with Moules en Croustade with leeks and white wine.

A quick trip to buy some sourdough bread, as the croustade is a loaf of bread, actually for two people, 2 loaves. Everything else was in the refrigerator.

According to himself the worse part of the whole meal was shucking ( does one say shucking for Moules?) the Moules, which he said took an age. However there is always a bit of a downside to Moules as they always have to be debearded before cooking.

For two generous portions

  • 2 crusty loaves
  • 4 Oz butter
  • 2 kilos of mussles
  • 75 mls dry white wine
  • 2 smallish leeks washed and finely chopped
  • 1/4 Cup crème fraiche
  • Salt and pepper to taste, beware taste well before seasoning.
  • 1tablespoon cornflour mixed together with 1 tablespoon soft butter
  • Some chives or chopped parsley to garnish
  • Cut off the top of each loaf and scoop out all of the bread inside ( keep to make some breadcrumbs)
  • Brush the inside of each loaf and lids with some melted butter and pop into a a hot oven 400C for about 5 minutes or so until they are crisp
  • Heat the wine and tip in the mussels, cover and cook for only a few moments until the shells have opened.
  • Tip into a colander and keep the cooking juices.
  • When cool enough to handle, remove the mussels from the shells.
  • Strain the cooking fluid through a mesh sieve to remove any grit that might be there.
  • Melt a knob of butter in a pan and add the leeks and cook for about 5 minutes, do not let them brown, but they do need to be soft.
  • Add the cooking liquid, boil and then simmer until it is reduced by half. Add the remaking butter, the cream and the butter/ cornflour mixture. Continue on gentle heat, stirring to avoid any lumps and the sauce thickens a little.
  • Reheat the loaves
  • Carefully add the mussels , taste, adjust seasoning and serve on the hot crisp loaves, garnish with chives and or parsley.

Absolutely delicious, forget the calories! And of course this can be easily adapted, using chicken, other seafood, or even an assortment of fish pieces, as in fish pie mix.

Indian Street Food ( PAU BHAJI )

I’ll start of by saying that I do not want to do an injustice to Indian Street food. However, whenever we visited India , many times over a period of 4 years ( my eldest grand daughter was born in Delhi) we were constantly warned ‘ Not to Eat Street Food’. My #1 daughter ventured forth just the once ( she is a travel journalist and as such thought she should) and ended up in hospital with severe dehydration from gastroenteritis . What had she eaten? A simple baked sweet potato with lime squeezed over. However, the standard of cleanliness leaves much to be desired, for the street dwellers there is no such luxury as somewhere to wash their hands, have a bath or even go to the loo. Hence why we were told, not to eat the street food.

However there have been numerous recipes handed down over the years, many of which obviously stem from Indian Street Food or home cooking.

One such dish is PAU BHAJI.

Pav bhaji is a a fast food dish from India consisting of a thick vegetable curry (bhaji) served with a soft bread roll (pav). Its origins are in the state of Mahrashtra, which is home to Mumbai.

For me it is the equivalent of my Refrigerator Soup, as it uses up all sorts of odds and ends from the refrigerator. I decided today that I would have a little sort out of the refrigerator and this is what I had, which needed using. 2 soft Parsnips, 2 wilted red peppers, 2 soft sweet potatoes, a large handful of green beans and then from the freezer some peas and half a packet of broad beans. Along with onions, garlic and ginger.

This was absolutely Perfect. Why? Simply because generally speaking the quality of produce is not high in India, #1 daughter lived in what was considered an upmarket neighbourhood, her nearest shop was across a busy road to Honey Money Top. It equated not even to my local Indian Stores here in London. Given the vast size of India, the poor transportation, roads are terrible, trains , lots of them, overcrowded and always late. Refrigerated trucks, not so many, it is hardly surprising that but the time goods get to market they are not at their best !

I will start by saying that all quantities are whatever you have, more or less, no matter.

  • 2-3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 or 3 white onions, sliced and chopped
  • 400grm can of tomatoes ( or fresh)
  • 1/4 tube tomato paste
  • 2tsp each of the following, ground cumin, turmeric, Garam masala
  • I also added some crushed chilli flakes and some crushed Kashmiri chillis for their wonderful colour.
  • Some salt
  • 100 grms butter ( or more to taste
  • Some cooking oil

And also

  • Any of the following vegetables
  • Cauliflower cut into florets
  • Green, red or yellow peppers, chopped,
  • Sweet potatoes peeled and chopped
  • Parsnips, peeled and chopped
  • Pumpkin or other squashes
  • Beans, peas and carrots

Put all of the vegetables from the second list into a saucepan along with water or stock to cover. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until really soft. Using a blender ( here I use a stick blender rather than a food processor, just to save on washing up) mush all the vegetables to a pulp.

The potatoes and sweet potatoes along with the onions, sauté with some oil until soft. I usually precook them for speed in the Microwave for about 5 minutes, and then sauté them. Add all of the spices along with the tomatoes and the tomato paste. cook for another 5-10 minutes

Then mix all of the above together to make a wonderful mushy vegetable mess! Normally it would be served as street food with a soft bread roll, but we have it alongside, some grilled chicken or fish.

Avocados

Food Fads come and Food Fads go. Avocados might have seen their day, as the food of the moment. Chia seeds were very much in vogue for a while. I brought bags of them from Mexico,where they were as cheap as chips, but then wondered why? I seriously didn’t like the look of the little black specs on my food. Quinoa, didn’t rock my boat either and neither did Tofu.

Sourdough bread, however you chose to make it, was the hit of the pandemic season, and baking. ( my personal favourite… Bagels). At the beginning of Lockdown #1 finding flour of any sorts proved to be a challenge.

My crowd farming Avocados

So here we are almost free. We have been out to eat now just twice.

Once was relatively warm, albeit outside. A chunk of the Taxi drive through had been partitioned of at a local Hyatt Regency and a Japanese garden full of cherry blossom had been recreated. Along with mega powerful heaters, it was nice. Nice not wonderful, the food was nice, the location was nice, ( we could walk there), all in all just nice. The menu was small, in fact almost tiny, but all in all, it was nice !

The second time was just this week, after a round of golf in Surrey. My own golf club has for whatever reason not yet opened the terrace, so there is no dining apart from a snack at the halfway house. Whereas, where, we were dining was in full swing, but am not sure that I saw any heaters, though snuggly blankets were supplied. And so it was more than nice, we were with friends after a round of golf. Life was almost normal. Dinner was more than nice albeit just a TAD chilly !

During our various Lockdowns I have been supporting Spanish farmers, small time artisan farmers. I have had the most wonderful Avocados, Mangoes, Lemons and Olive oil. Delivered to my door. I have had 2x 2 litres of olive oil, 2x boxes of Avocados and one each of Mangoes and Lemons.

The Avocado comes from a tree which originated in South Central Mexico. The oldest discovery of an avocado pit dating as far back 10,000 years ago. Today, it is grown in most tropical and Mediterranean climates. It is a fruit and technically a berry, contains just one large single seed. Commercially avocados are picked before they are ripe, which makes it perfect for buying from the farmer and allowing to ripen at home. Mexico is by far the biggest producer of avocados, producing several times more than the second producer which is California.

Nutritionally, Avocados, are classified as a super food, rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamin C, iron, riboflavin and fat. It is the only fruit that contains fat.

There are numerous recipes for Avocados, but generally speaking all are cold in some form of Guacamole, smushed, salsa and salads. But how about Avocado fries with a parmesan crust? Or Avocado cream sauce for pasta? Yes you can do it! Now I’m currently eating my way through my last delivery. They arrive rock hard, I put most in the refrigerator and two in the fruit bowl, they ripen fairly quickly. Once ripened, one is ready to eat and one goes back into the refrigerator, another goes into the fruit bowl, and so on and so forth. I often have them for breakfast, smushed with lemon juice, sriracha and a pinch of salt. On a home made bagel. My other favourite is of course Guacamole.

On our numerous visits to Mexico, we ate some amazing food and lots of Avocados. We went to some wonderful restaurants and some very fun ones. One such restaurant is Arroyos south of Mexico City. It is the worlds largest Mexican restaurant and at peak times has over 1,000 staff! Along with Mariachi bands, certainly a fun place to go. This was after having even more fun on a Party boat in Xochimilco, one of the 16 boroughs of Mexico City. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the name comes from the Aztec language ( Nahuatl) meaning Flower Garden.

For Crispy avocado fries ( which are actually baked not fried) you will need :-

  • Perfectly ripe avocados, Goldilocks like, not too hard, not too soft, but just right! Cut them into wedges.
  • lightly crushed Panko Bread crumbs mixed with finely grated parmesan cheese, along with some salt, some cayenne pepper and maybe chilli powder or Piri Piri
  • A beaten egg
  • A hot oven

Sorry quantities are hit and miss, depending on how many fries you are going to make, I had a handful of panko and the same of cheese, I used two eggs.

Simply, peel and cut the avocados into wedges, dip in the egg and then the breadcrumb mixture. Place on a baking tray drizzle some oil over ( not too much and obviously Avocado oil would be the best) and pop into a hot-Ish oven and bake for 5-10 mins until golden.( Keep an eye on them, don’t want burnt).

And I have just read that the skins of Avocados can be toxic to certain animals and birds and therefore can act as a deterrent! ( I am trialling to keep Pigeons away !)

If you go down to the woods today!

If you go down to the woods today, especially a wood that is designated Ancient Woodland, then you are more than likely to come across Wild Garlic.

Wild Garlic is one of the number of plant species whose presence indicates that a wood is ancient. Traditionally used in medicine, with the bulb being one of the key ingredients in tonics for rheumatic problems and high cholesterol.

It is a popular foraged ingredient, as its leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or blanched and used in place of spinach, or mades into a soup, pesto, wild garlic butter and for sauces. They have a mild garlic flavour and are at their best before the flowers appear. The flowers are also edible and can be added raw to salads.

A friend from Brussels days, has over 100 acres of ancient woodland and as such in the spring has an abundant source of wild garlic, along with glade upon glade of the most beautiful English Bluebells.

On my last visit ( pre-pandemic days) she was busy making wild garlic and potato soup. Although I have in the past made oodles of soup, but currently himself is not a soup frame of mind.

However, Watts Farm in Kent, ( my current favourite online grocery delivery service ( ok they don’t have everything I want) but they do have some unusual things besides and wild garlic being one of them. I think I have bought 400 grams of the leaves ( and I can tell you, that is a lot !)

So what did I use it for? Firstly I made wild garlic butter, which I wizzed up softened butter and the garlic leaves together, put into ice cube trays, froze, bagged, to go into the freezer drawer, along with my other butters and sauces.

Next I made, some wild garlic pesto, which is a combination of Olive Oil, wild garlic and pine nuts. because of the concentration of oil, it will get thick but will not freeze, so I bag it in smallish quantities and out in the freezer.

Finally, I made some wild garlic sauce, which I served with some steak, asparagus and a sauté of mixed mushrooms.

To make a wild garlic sauce

  1. 50 grams butter
  2. 4 small shallots diced
  3. a clove of garlic, crushed
  4. 100 grams wild garlic leaves
  5. pinch of dried tarragon, or 1 oz of fresh, chopped
  6. 150 mls single cream
  7. pinch of salt
Fresh Tarragon

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the shallots and garlic, cook gently, being careful not to brown the shallots. Add the wild garlic and the tarragon and cook until the leaves are tender.

Transfer to a blender, put the cream in the pan and bring to the boil, add it to the blender and process until smooth. Season with salt to taste.

English asparagus is in season right now. Here are just two of the varieties available.