Degree of difficulty: medium (because of the prep involved)
Time: 40 minutes, mostly spent chopping ingredients and cleaning the mussels
Serves: 2 handsomely
It was a snowy December day in New York City, perhaps five years ago, when Mike and I met one of our favorite couples, Ken and Rosemary Schulz, for lunch at Le Refuge, the tiny French restaurant on 56th Street, which has since closed.
Known for its mussels, we ordered three different preparations, shared, and savored. All were sensational, but the Thai mussels in coconut milk were transcendent. We sipped wine and laughed far into the afternoon over the antics of our kids long ago, their years of growing up together in South Salem, the paths our lives have taken since.
I craved the mussels of Le Refuge almost immediately upon return home and searched for a similar recipe. This one by renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is fabulous, and yes, as transcendent as that magical day.
Thai Mussels in Coconut Milk
1 10 1/2 ounce can coconut milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger or galangal (hard to find in Columbus)
2 lemongrass stalks, trimmed, smashed and chopped
1 fresh green Thai chile, halved lengthwise
1/4 tablespoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon corn, canola or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced fresh red Thai chiles
1 1/2 pound mussels, washed well and beards removed
1 cups loosely packed fresh Thai basil leaves or cilantro, roughly sliced
(I've also added a handful of Kaffir lime leaves while steaming the mussels, but couldn't find any this time. Whole Foods and the Asian markets have reduced their exotic-ness, perhaps due to the sluggish economy.)
Begin by soaking the mussels in water to remove sand and grit. Change the water bath several times. Cut off the beards, if any are sticking out, with a paring knife.
Put the coconut milk, galangal or ginger, lemongrass and chile in a saucepan and bring to boil over high heat. Add the lemon zest, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and strain, pressing down on the mixture. Cool to room temp, then add lemon juice and salt. Stir to combine and set aside.
Put the oil in a large frying pan that can later be covered and set over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and shallots and cook until lightly browned.
Stir in the chiles, then add the mussels (and lime leaves if using) and the lemongrass infusion.
Shake the pan vigorously (with a kitchen towel draped over your shoulder and that pan-shaking technique, you'll look just like Vongerichten), then add two-thirds of the basil (or cilantro). Cover and cook just until the mussels open, about 3 minutes. (I'm sure you know to discard any mussels that didn't open.)
Transfer the mussels to serving bowls with the cooking liquid. Garnish with remaining basil leaves (or cilantro) and serve immediately.
Note: this was served at Le Refuge with crostini. Crusty bread, warm or crisply toasted, works well. Vongerichten recommends white rice as an accompaniment.
Suggested soundtrack: Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Variation XVIII."