The new fishmonger in my neck of the woods is open until 10 o'clock at night. While nothing will persuade me to stray from my beloved Mr Hatt in the hours of daylight, such convenient opening hours have seen me hop off the bus a couple of times this week after working late and still managing to have a nice little baked fish on the table within 40 minutes of getting home. The idea of being able to dash out for fresh oysters on the shell as an impromptu midweek treat is tempting beyond words. The guy is even open on a Sunday.
That said, a bag of fresh mussels should come to little harm in the fridge overnight, should you have to do your shopping the day before, as most of us do. Cheap as chips and great fun to eat, they make one of the best Sunday suppers I can think of, though they will survive better in wet newspaper than in a bucket of chemically treated tap water.
I admit to being a bit over-zealous in preparing mussels for cooking, checking each one for even the slightest sign of unhappiness. It doesn't take long, now that most of them arrive already cleaned rather than caked in mud and barnacles, as they used to. After chucking out any open mussels that refuse to close the instant they are tapped on the sink, each one is carefully checked for freshness by squeezing the shells tightly together with my thumb and finger - fresh ones have a fierce tightness to them. Any whose shells are loose or cracked or any that are dead heavy (and therefore full of mud) are hurled at the bin. Neurotic I may be, but I would rather risk losing the odd fresh one than losing my supper in the early hours of the morning.
A colander full of moules, all spanking fresh, their cold shells glistening in shades of wet indigo, is a joy to behold. You know that within 10 minutes you can have a pleasingly tactile supper of shellfish in white wine and parsley, possibly the most hands-on supper of them all; a little longer and you could be slipping juicy little bivalves under a garlic-scented breadcrumb crust down your throat. And all this will be ready in a trice; nothing good will come from slowcooking a mussel.
I am not quite sure what to make of the fact that my bag of mussels seems to be all female. You would expect a bit more of a mix, wouldn't you? It is only the dark amber colour of the flesh itself that tells you that you are about to pop a female rather than a male into your mouth. Flavour wise, they are equally tasty. The temptation to set the table with a white paper cloth and bring out a fat pot of the little shells sitting in a classic broth of white wine and garlic and parsley is almost irresistible. But the wine could well be swapped for coconut milk, the garlic for ginger and lemon grass, the parsley for coriander, to give a sort of Thai mariniere. As it is I have opted for something altogether more rustic, a broth made from dry cider, shallots and cream, the only dithering being whether or not to put some parsley in. With crisp baguettes and cold, sweet, pale butter, this is a supper as fine as any, and, it has to be said, cheaper than most.
Mussels with cider
A certain magic happens when you mix shellfish, cider and the finest double cream. Serves 2
1 medium sized shallot (or 2 little ones)
15g butter (a large knob)
250ml dry cider
4 tbsp double cream
Get two large soup bowls ready to warm. Scrub the mussels, tug away any hairy beards and check scrupulously for any dead or broken mussels. Peel and finely chop the shallot. Put it into a large deep pan with butter over a low heat. Let the shallot soften, stirring it regularly so it doesn't colour. When it is soft and translucent pour in the cider, let it bubble up, then add the cleaned mussels. Cover tightly with a lid and turn the heat to medium. Cook for two minutes till the shells have opened. Lift the mussels out with a draining spoon into your two warm bowls and cover. Turn up the heat, pour in the cream, stir and season gently with black pepper. Let it bubble for a minute.Taste the sauce, and in the unlikely event of you needing salt, add a very little. Pour the sauce over the mussels and serve immediately with crusty bread and a spoon for the cider sauce.
Baked apple sponge
Eve's pudding is one of those 'lost' nursery recipes that deserves to be brought up to date. I've added ground almonds and a little citrus zest to the sponge in order to distance it from the slightly bland apple sponge I remember from school dinners. It should be fine as it is, though a jug of cream or custard will be welcomed by many. Serves 4
For the apples:
750g sharp cooking apples
3-4 tbsp unrefined caster sugar
a knife point of cinnamon
a couple of cloves
For the sponge:
130g caster sugar
80g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
grated zest of a lemon
grated zest of an orange
80g ground almonds
Set the oven at 180C/Gas 4. Peel the apples, core them and cut them into rough chunks. Toss them with the sugar and the cinnamon and cloves then put them in a pan with 3 tbsp of sugar and 2 tbsp of water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and let them cook for 10 minutes or so till the apples are soft but still retaining some of their shape. Meanwhile, cut the butter into pieces and put it in the bowl of a food mixer with the sugar. Beat till light and fluffy then break the eggs, beat them lightly and add them to the butter and sugar. If they curdle briefly, add a tablespoon of the flour. Mix the flour and baking powder together. Add the grated lemon and orange zest, flour and ground almonds to the mixture and continue mixing at a low speed till all the ingredients are lightly but thoroughly combined. You should have a soft, smooth mixture. If it seems stiff, add a little milk. Pile the warm cooked apples into a deep pie dish then smooth the cake mixture over the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until well risen and bubbling round the sides.