Brimming bowls of goodness

Tuscan bean soup

Tuscan bean soup

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

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.

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