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A delicate balance of New England shellfish, world flavors: curried mussels with cilantro

Curry powder, garlic, shallots, coconut milk, wine and cilantro blend into a surprisingly delicate broth for steamed mussels.

By Blue Kitchen / March 28, 2012

Curried mussels with cilantro blend big global flavors into a delicate dish.

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One of the things I love about cooking is the prep work, getting everything chopped, minced, measured and ready to go. I still remember the first time, years ago, that I did a proper mise en place, organizing everything I would need before turning on the flame under the pan. Seeing the five or six little bowls of ingredients lined up on the counter, I could tell I had taken a step forward in my cooking.

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Blue Kitchen

Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.

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An added bonus of doing the prep work, certainly with this dish, is all the wonderful aromas that take over. Garlic, shallot, cilantro, the lemongrass as you smash it with the side of the knife, the curry powder as you spoon it into a waiting ramekin…. Their fragrances come in waves as you work, layering together and hinting at the flavors you’ll soon be enjoying. 

I’ve cooked mussels here a number of times. They’re inexpensive, especially for seafood, fun and elegantly messy to eat with your hands and so delicious. Their mild brininess blends beautifully with any number of flavors. And mussels cook up quickly. Once they hit the pan, you’re five to 10 minutes from dinner.

Mussels are also that extremely rare find – sustainably farmed seafood. I’ve written about that before here, but it bears repeating. Mussels don’t need to be fed other seafood; they filter their sustenance from the water around them. So they actually clean the water, instead of polluting it as some farmed seafood does. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the go-to authority on seafood sustainability, calls farmed mussels a Best Choice. Most American-farmed mussels come from the coast of Maine.

Usually when I’ve cooked mussels, it’s been with a European direction – with tarragon and cream or oregano, saffron and tomatoes – or out and out French, with the classic Moules Marinières. This time, though, I took a pan-Asian (plus semi-global) approach. It started when I read a recipe somewhere for curried mussels. It sounded good enough to prompt finding more recipes for the same. There were many differences and one surprising constant (besides the mussels, I mean).

Camps were divided on the curry. Many called for Thai red curry paste, while some chose curry powder. Curries, I should point out, are actually dishes – usually vegetables, meat or fish – with a richly spiced sauce. While they originated in India, they’re found throughout Asia. Curry powder is a mix of spices used to flavor curries (the same with curry pastes). Shallots and garlic appeared in some recipes, but not in all, as did lemongrass, which is closely associated with Southeast Asian cuisines. Wine figured in some recipes, not Asian at all, as did vermouth. And while some relied on cream for richness, most went with coconut milk, a staple of Thai cuisine.

With all those differences, the one universal ingredient was cilantro. Get out your passports for this one. It probably originated somewhere in Mediterranean Europe and has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. But it’s also a big part of Southeast Asian cooking and practically mandatory for most Mexican recipes.

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