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.

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

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.

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.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I put so many big flavors together. What I got was a surprisingly delicate balance. It was flavorful, make no mistake. But no one ingredient tromped all over the others – or our taste buds. Everything blended into one sublime meal. Each ingredient was definitely there and accounted for, but no one was shouting.

Curried Mussels with Cilantro
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

2 pounds mussels
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed, cut into pieces (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 cup dry white wine [editor's note: substitue cooking wine]
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional (see Kitchen Notes)
2 generous tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided
1/2 cup light coconut milk

a baguette or other crusty bread

A quick note: Prep everything else before you clean the mussels – or even remove them from the fridge.

Clean the mussels. Scrub mussels with a stiff brush under cold running water, discarding any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you tap their shells. Remove the beards which may appear along the hinge side of the shell, using a sharp knife or pulling with your fingers. Set aside in a bowl.

Heat olive oil in a large, lidded pan (a sauté pan is ideal) over a medium flame. Add the shallot and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes, until soft. Add garlic and lemongrass and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add wine, water, curry powder and half the cilantro and stir to combine. Add mussels in a single layer and cover pan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cook just until mussels open, about 4 to 6 minutes.

Transfer mussels to a bowl with a slotted spoon, discarding any mussels that don’t open. Add coconut milk to pan and raise heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil, stirring, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes to blend flavors. The broth will not appreciably reduce; that’s okay.

Divide mussels among shallow serving bowls. Spoon broth over mussels, avoiding pieces of lemongrass as much as possible (there’s nothing dangerous about it – it’s just chewy). Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and serve with crusty bread for sopping up the flavorful broth.

Kitchen Notes

Lemongrass. This delicious Southeast Asian grass (yes, it’s really a grass) is filled with citrus oil. It’s also fibrous and tough. Sometimes, you need the actual plant, so you peel it down to the tender core and mince it well. Other times, like now, all you need is the oils. Peel off some of the outer tough leaves, cut the stalk into 2-inch sections and bash them with the side of a chef’s knife. This will release the oils into the broth as it cooks.

Heating things up. A little heat in this dish livens up the delicate balance of flavors. The curry powder I used was already packing heat in the form of ground Sannam red chiles. If your curry powder isn’t hot, consider adding crushed red pepper flakes.

Where’s the salt? You’ll notice there’s none in the recipe. The mussels release briny liquid into the broth, and extra salt is rarely needed.

Related post: Baked Mussels with Saffron and Tomatoes

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