Spicy mussel and burnt mushroom toast w/ broth
overcooking mussels is not a victimless crime. do not engage.
Amongst all the abundant obstacles in between humanity and happiness, I am perhaps most snuggly and intimate with one in particular. Jealousy. I am jealous a lot, both in frequency and of subjects. If you had just crossed my path in a white linen dress resting around a decently shaped neck, chances are, in the privacy of my somber awareness, I hated the shit out of you. I don’t want to. But it doesn’t matter what I want. I am betrothed to my involuntary raid on all signs of missing things.
What does this have to do with mussels or mushrooms, or toasts for that matter? Well, for it stands as a mascot for a particular specimen of humankind – one of many others of course – who consistently requests for my envy in every encounters:
Self-enjoying party hosts.
Who are they and which planet do they come from? And are we going to see a lot more of them after the storming of Area 51? Because let’s face it, in what is inarguably a highly stressful and – don’t deny it – hostile environment where any number of guests has a private agenda of writing a secret bedside review of how you run your life, what kind of creature could forgo one’s self-consciousness and actually have a fucking good time? Either not of this earth or a really drunk one is my guess.
Well, with neither options available to me, it explains why during my last dinner party, which was, uh, two years ago, I choked epically and had completely forgotten to add the cooked mussels as well as their broth as a key component in my meticulously conspired yet fastly derailing seafood paella. With my guests chatters looming in the background, cold sweat hanging by a lash, I turned and dumped the broth down the drain like dumping a dead body in a back alley cuz I was sure I just killed someone, and quickly tossed the mussels with a mushroom salad I had separately prepared as a side dish. That night, no one suspected the “shrimp paella” of any other intentions, the questions around the randomness of a “mussel salad” remained kindly unvoiced, but I couldn’t escape the suspicion that everyone thought everything was overly salted. Did good conversations take place? Of course. But if you are one who only remembers the good times, I’m bitterly jealous of you.
So consider this a redo. Because yes, yes I’m still thinking about it. Even two long years later, I’m still thinking about how the plumpness of the mussels together with the dehydrated, almost candied bodies of the shitake mushrooms, could’ve done so much better if they were conjoined by a lubrication that is spicy, thick, tangy and creamy with Korean chili paste and crème fraîche, laced with the occasional crunch of minced shallots and chives, all served on golden slice of bread that is more crutons than toast as it is soaked through and fry to a crisp in butter with absolute resolve. And that broth, that perfectly briny, innocent, and collaterally sacrificed broth in the name of my weak nerves, would have been the most brilliant “tea-pairing” to this complete dish with unrealized potentials.
Now come to think of it, if I had been able to let go and fully enjoy my own party, I wouldn’t be here sharing this delicious morsel with you, would I? My rare positivity is making me jealous.
- 1 lb (450 grams) shitake mushrooms
- Extra virgin olive oil for cooking
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 2 fresh sprigs of thyme
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 lbs (900 grams) fresh live mussels
- 1 large lemongrass, smashed and cut into segments
- 2 slices of ginger, about 2" each
- 1/3 cup cheap Japanese sake wine, see note *
- 1/3 cup chicken stock
- 2 tbsp heavy cream
- Fine sea salt and ground white pepper to season
- 2 small shallots, finely minced
- 5 tbsp (67 grams) crème fraîche or sour cream
- 4 tbsp (70 grams) Korean gochujang/chili paste
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp finely chopped chives or scallion
- Fresh dill to garnish
- 4 slices of country bread
- Unsalted butter for toasting
- PREPARE BURNT MUSHROOMS: Wash the shitake mushrooms and cut into quarters, with the dry tip of the stem removed. Heat up a large, flat skillet over high heat, and 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil to coat the skillet. Add just enough mushrooms to fit in a single layer, toss for a couple times then leave them alone for 1 full minute, allowing them to brown in peace. Flip them over with a spatula and further coat them with 1~2 tbsp more of olive oil, and let brown again. Repeat this until the mushrooms are deeply caramelized on all sides, lost half of their volumes, dehydrated and almost become "mushroom candy", about 5 minutes in total duration. Repeat with the second batch if needed.
- Return all the mushroom to the skillet and push to the side. Add 1 tbsp more of olive oil on the empty side, along with minced garlics and thyme. Cook until fragrant, then toss together with the mushroom, season with sea salt and black pepper, and cook for another minute. Transfer onto a plate and let cool.
- PREPARE MUSSELS AND BROTH: Unless your mussels come squeaky clean, otherwise scrub down each shells vigorously with a metal brush to remove all the scums, impurities and grits on the exterior. This is CRUCIAL in obtaining a pure and clean-tasting broth instead of one that otherwise tastes like fish tanks!
- In a large pot over high heat, bring lemongrass, ginger, sake and chicken broth to a boil, then add all the mussels. Do not put the lid on, instead, keep turning the mussels with a wooden spoon, ensuring even cooking throughout. When some of the mussels are fully open while the flesh are firm but still plump and juicy, NOT shriveled, transfer them with a tongs into another bowl, and letting the rest cook further until they are ready. Overcooking mussels is not a victimless crime. Do not engage.
- Strain the broth through a fine sieve, squeezing out all possible liquid and discard the solid. Set aside. Gently remove the mussels from the shells and set aside in another large bowl. The above steps can be done a few hours ahead of time. If so, cover the mussels to prevent drying out.
- TO SERVE: In the large bowl with mussels, add the equivalent amount of burnt mushrooms (you may have a few extra left for snacking), minced shallots, crème fraîche, gochujang, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, black pepper and chopped chives. Mix until even, set aside. Meanwhile, add heavy cream to the broth and warm it up over medium heat. Re-season with sea salt if needed.
- In a large, flat skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tbsp of unsalted butter for each slices of bread (you heard me, and this is for one side only). Move the slices around to soak up the butter and toast until crispy and caramelized. Flip, add more butter, like 1 1/2 tbsp for each slices, that's right, you want the breads to almost fry in butter, and toast until the second side is crispy and browned as well.
- Amount a generous dune of mussels and burnt mushrooms on each slices of golden breads, garnish with sprigs of dill leaves, and serve with a small teacup of mussels broth drizzled with a dab of extra virgin olive oil and dusts of white pepper.
* I'm using sake wine for its neutral flavor so the essence of the mussel can shrine through in the broth. You can also use Chinese rice wine. But if you only have dry white wine, then reduce the amount to 1/4 cup, and expect a much more "wine-y" taste in the broth.