Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mussels with Loukanika and Saffron

About an hour and half drive from Melbourne, along the Bellarine Peninsula, there's this little place called Portarlington. We love it there. It's not the fanciest place to visit, or the most idyllic beach you'll ever come to, but this small town has something calming about it - a slower sense of time passing. It's the kind of place that is still dominated by summer houses built in the 1950s and has parks with big old trees and electric barbecues right behind the sand. There's a couple of small bakeries and a mini-supermarket and a pub and there's an excellent fish and chip shop that serves South Melbourne Market dim sims. And on the end of their pier you can buy fresh mussels right off the boat for very, very cheap.

A big bowl of steaming hot mussels is so impressive; it always seems to me like a seafood banquet we somehow acquire, fortuitously, for only $10. But really, they're always that price and they're so easy to cook. You can poke them into a paella-like rice dish right at the end, pop on the lid and let them steam until they open, or smoke them on a barbecue like Jamie did in his Jamie at Home series. I like them best simply steamed with a fragrant, white wine broth that you can tailor to whatever you feel like or have on hand. And, lucky for us, loukanika is what I had on hand last week when we got back from Portarlington.

Loukanika is a Greek sausage that is used a lot like a chorizo, although it is typically flavoured with wine, orange or leeks. They're delicious sliced and fried with a squeeze of lemon served as a meze, or sliced into a pan and browned before adding beaten eggs to make a heart-stopping/heart-winning scramble. Here, a spicy orange loukanika is sliced and fried, before adding chopped onion, garlic and fresh tomato to make a robust and heady base for the mussels. The whole sticky lot is then deglazed with dry white wine and a good pinch of saffron, delicate and luxurious, is thrown in to bring the whole lot together. After this, it is simply a matter of throwing in the scrubbed mussels, giving the whole lot a big stir and popping on the lid until the shells open and release their delicious sea juices. In winter you could serve this with potatoes, roasted or mashed, but in summer I like a big piece of toasted sour dough to mop up all that flavour.

Mussels with Loukanika and Saffron
1kg fresh mussels
1 tbsp olive oil
1 Greek loukanika sausage, sliced
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped finely
2 large tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
3/4 cup fish stock, or vegetable stock
A good pinch of saffron threads
A good handful of continental parsley, roughly chopped

At least an hour before cooking, pour mussels into a bowl or sink of cold water to soak and release any sand or grit. When ready to begin, scrub mussels with a stiff brush and if necessary, debeard. For detailed instructions on preparing mussels, look here.

To peel tomatoes, cut a small X into the base of each fruit and put into a bowl. Pour over boiling water until covered and leave to stand for a few minutes. Drain and when cool enough to handle, peel. Skins should slide off easily. Chop peeled tomatoes into a rough dice, reserving juices.

Heat the olive oil on medium heat in a pot large enough to hold all the mussels. Add sliced loukanika and fry until crispy and golden on both sides. Remove from pot, set aside and fry onions in all the goodness from the sausages until they become soft and a bit sticky (turn down the heat if they seem to be cooking too quickly). Add garlic and fry for a minute or so. Add chopped, peeled tomatoes and juices, stirring to combine. Fry for around 5 minutes until the mixture thickens, then add wine. As it bubbles up, scrape the bottom of the pan with your spoon to collect all the brown goodness. Put the loukanika back in and add the stock. Pop the lid on, turn the heat up slightly and let the whole lot come to a boil. Taste for salt, remembering that the mussel shells will impart a sea water saltiness - I usually leave salt out.

When the pot seems excited and ready, add the drained mussels and give the whole lot a big stir. Replace the lid and steam for about 8 minutes. Give the pot a good shake a couple of times to give all the mussels a chance! Take a peek - they're ready when open. If not, give them a few extra minutes. When ready, ladle into bowls with some of the juices. Add parsley to each.

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