Mussels with Harissa and Basil
Toasted walnuts are a surprise addition to the creamy, smoky red pepper puree that gets swirled into these harissa-spiked steamed mussels. Anisey Thai basil and salty-sour pickled onions compliment the sweet, plump mussels.
Like many a northern Midwesterner, my need for seafood hits its fever pitch now, after the solstice, when temperatures dip below zero and a sloshed cup of coffee freezes on my boots like toffee-colored ice—when our world is covered in a quilt of snow and is as far removed from rushing water as it will ever be.I like to cook in time with the seasons as much as anyone, but the frozen landscape makes the whole seasonal eating thing seem almost quaint—as if it’s an ethic for other, less desperate people to follow. In a way, the lack of fresh produce in winter feels creatively freeing. Winter cooking makes you dig for better search material; it’s a blank tape that I can shove into my kitchen VCR. I may cook in a snow-buried bunker stocked with nuts and potatoes and unusual ramen noodles, but I still have greedy, irrational cravings. If I squint just right into the sun glare hitting the snow drifts, I see a beach. When the arctic air cuts through my nose, swift and hygienic, I immediately think of mussels, soft herbs, and a cleansing lemon sauce. But the whipping Minnesota winds demand warming, comforting food, like avgolemono, the classic lemony Greek soup gently thickened with egg. Mussels cooked like avgolemono, is that a thing? Well, it is now—a dish that represents everything I want but can’t have.So when my brother Marc proposes that we order some West Coast oysters for the Christmas feast, I swiftly add mussels to the online cart. The day they’re set to arrive, two feet of snow falls, making our driveway impassable to even the most hardcore of northern UPS trucks. After calling friends and pulling favors, I get our driver’s personal cell number and agree to meet him at the country store five miles down the road. In my kitchen, I dump the clattering mussels into the sink and pull on their wiry little beards; they free with satisfying pops. I sweat sliced shallots and a dangerous amount of garlic in butter, add the mussels, and then thicken the winey sauce with egg yolks and the juice of one too many lemons. Against the backdrop of the blizzard, the bright yellow marine sauce tastes thrillingly improper.I’m so glad I saved the UPS driver’s number, because I’m definitely doing this again.
These tasty steamed mussels get cooked in a foil pack right on the grill, which is ideal for summer when you want to be cooking outdoors. Food & Wine’s Justin Chapple adds a smoky and spicy hit of chipotle in adobo sauce to the mussels, but if you like less heat, feel free to cut back or omit that altogether. Slideshow: More Mussels Recipes