Brimming bowls of goodness
Tuscan bean soup
Good bread makes more of mussels and beans, for substantial suppers
A WEEK-LONG family holiday in France always sounds idyllic. But my grasp of the language is patchy at best, so the week feels like one long spell of incomprehension in the sun. I try to converse, then go bright red, flap around helplessly, pointing at nouns which are usually bits of fruit or veg or stinky cheese.
My husband is pretty good at foreign tongues, so I usually hide behind him like some child behind her mother’s skirt, hoping with a few well chosen sentences he’ll complete my transactions. But by the second last day, I’ve usually mastered a few choice words, (“un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plait”) – and actually start to feel I can blend in a little. Of course, this misplaced confidence meant that I ended up trying to explain what Transition year is in Irish schools to the woman at the checkout in the local Carrefour.
Don’t even start to wonder how I got onto that subject, but somehow I made a leap from asking for some plastic bags, to trying to figure out what bags for life were in French, to transition year students. This provided much mirth for the duration of the holiday for the rest of the family, astounded that my cockiness backfired so spectacularly, leaving me fumbling at the checkout for even the words “merci” and “au revoir”.
A couple of rainy days later, we took a detour to the coast where they farm oysters and mussels. A few of the seaside towns bustled with restaurants that all specialised in moules frites. We rocked up to the one that seemed the friendliest and ordered three moules frites, plus a mini hamburger for the little one.
Grumpily they fecked the plates at us. A nice older man hobbled around behind the bar. A young waitress – more intent on a life more glamorous – threw a few drinks at us. I wasn’t holding out much hope, but the mussels were tasty and our sated hunger quelled any misgivings about the service.
But I couldn’t help but feel that the last few bowls of mussels I have had have all been rather disappointing.
What ends up happening is you get a bowl of salty sea liquid, which the mussels may have been cooked in, but doesn’t really do you much good from a dunking pint of view. It’s all too watery and salty. The happy medium is to steam them in something a little thicker, like some cooking liquid emulsified with some butter, maybe a little white wine and sautéed shallot, lots of parsley, maybe some herbed breadcrumbs, or garlic.
I prefer bread with mussels rather than chips. But that’s just me. Hence this tomato and fennel sauce with tonnes of olive oil, fennel, and garlic works a treat, with garlic-rubbed bread in the bottom.
And remember the basic rules about mussels: remove any barnacle-type bits with a small sharp knife. Pull away any beards with your fingers and give the mussels a good rinse and discard any with broken or cracked shells. When you cook them, the shells will open up. Any that don’t, chuck.
The Tuscan bean soup is hearty and delicious and gives you a similar type of tomato and bread vibe, without the mussels, but with lots of Cavolo Nero. Like the mussels, this could be a starter or main course, depending on how filling or fancy you want it to be.
Mussels with tomato, fennel garlic
Serves 4-6 as a starter
200ml olive oil
6 cloves garlic
3 tsp fennel seeds
1-2 fennel bulbs, very finely diced
1 onions, peeled and sliced
8 tomatoes, roughly diced
4-6 slices sourdough, toasted
Salt and pepper
1kg mussels scrubbed and prepared (see above)
150ml red wine
Heat the olive oil and four cloves of the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the fennel seeds and the fennel and onion and cook, very gently, until really soft. Meanwhile, toast the sourdough thoroughly and leave it in the toaster or on a wire rack to cool, so it doesn’t go soggy.
Then, using the last two pieces of garlic, rub them on the cool toast, almost as though you were grating the garlic clove along the crisp toast. This will create a fantastic garlic-rubbed bit of sourdough.
Chuck the end bits of garlic into the saucepan along with the fennel and onion. Cut the bread into triangles and put in the bottom of 4-6 bowls. Add the tomatoes to the saucepan and stir and season. Cook with a lid on for about five minutes to let the tomatoes break down a bit. Turn the heat up in the saucepan and then add the mussels and wine and cook for about two or three minutes, with the lid on.
Give the pan a good shake every now and then, and providing you have good heat, take a look and hopefully most of the shells will be open. Discard any that haven’t opened. Taste the tomato mix and then spoon it on top of the bread into each bowl and serve straight away, topped with lots of mussels.
Tuscan white bean and bread soup
1 loaf sourdough, cut into chunks
2 x 400g tins cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1.5 litres vegetable stock
100-150ml olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 big bunches Cavolo Nero or kale, stalks removed roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 large potato, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
Parmesan to serve
Drizzle the bread with some olive oil, salt and pepper and bake for about 20 minutes at 160 degrees/gas 3, until golden brown. Then set aside. In a food processor or blender, mix one tin of drained beans with about 200ml of the stock, on pulse mode. Not total mush, but lumpy puree is what you’re after.
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and sweat the carrots and onion until soft. Add the Cavolo Nero and when it has tamed somewhat, add the garlic, tomatoes, potato, processed beans and remaining tin of drained beans and stock. Mix well and stir. Season and simmer for about 40 minutes, until the potato is tender. Taste, season and serve in bowls, on top of the toasted bread, and sprinkle with Parmesan and lots of black pepper and maybe a bit more olive oil.
Domini recommends: The renovation of Russborough House’s West Wing, which can be rented through Irish Landmark Trust. Self-catering heaven, perfect for family get-togethers and special occasions, with a wonderful kitchen to cook in. I am seriously considering becoming a squatter