At-Home Mussels -- And a Case for DIY Curry Paste

We were hankering for mussels at Casa Appetite over the weekend, a craving that also met our objective of eating more sustainable seafood. Mussels get a unanimous green light from the environmental community, getting high marks for aqua-farm management practices and their low position on the food chain.

Mussels with a red curry take off the chill. (Kim O'Donnel)

If you've never dared to make mussels at home, it's time to get busy. They are so easy to prepare you'll be wondering what took you so long to wake up to this marvelous dinner secret. Once rinsed and inspected, mussels require less than 10 minutes of cooking time. Dinner can literally be on the table in a half hour.

For Sunday night's supper, I wanted a bowlful of ka-pow, a little heat in my mussel broth on this stubbornly chilly spring eve. A coconut curry sounded just right. But I wondered, should I buy a can of red curry paste or make my own? If you know me, then you already know the answer: I'm a kitchen geek and made my own.

Before you completely dismiss the idea of making your own Thai curry paste, hear me out: It's really worth the extra time. Really. Yes, I know, an hour of active prep time, plus an hour for soaking the dried chiles, makes a total of two hours just for paste making, but here's what you do to make this sidebar project worthwhile: You double the recipe, portion the paste into ¼-cup increments and freeze it in individual containers. Next time you're in the mood for curried mussels (and you will be, I promise), you yank the paste out of the freezer, and you've got that dinner, as promised, in 30 minutes.

Unless you are a Thai cooking enthusiast, you'll need to factor in an Asian grocery visit for many of the paste ingredients, including lemongrass, galangal (a rhizome similar to ginger), kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and shrimp paste. Don't fret if you can't find everything on the list; I've provided substitutions for many of the more hard-to-source ingredients.

Although the traditional tool for making curry paste is a mortar and pestle, it is perfectly acceptable in our crunched-for-time age to use a food processor or blender.

The results, by the way, were downright stellar -- a balance of sweet, salty, spicy and pungent -- and a depth of flavor that only a pair of hands (not a can) can produce. We lapped up every drop -- and envisioned another red curried evening in the not-too-distant future.

Red Curry Paste

From "From Curries to Kebabs" by Madhur Jaffrey

10-12 dried hot red chiles (such as de arbol, pequin or Japanese), stemmed
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped shallots (about 4 medium shallots)
1 tablespoon fresh lemongrass, outer tough layers and tops removed, thinly sliced (about a three-inch hunk)
3 thin slices peeled, fresh or frozen galangal (alternatively, equal amounts fresh ginger root)
1 thin slice fresh kaffir lime rind (alternatively 1 lime leaf, vein removed, julienned)
6-8 cilantro roots (or stems), washed well and coarsely chopped
Pinch ground white pepper
¼ teaspoon shrimp paste or 2 anchovies (canned or jarred), chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons red paprika

Soak chiles in 5 tablespoons of hot water for at least one hour. (Alternatively, place them in a microwave oven for 2-3 minutes and allow to set for 20-30 minutes.)

Pour rehydrated chiles and soaking liquid into the bowl of a food processor or blender, along with the remaining ingredients, one by one, in order listed.

Blend, pushing down with a rubber spatula as many times as necessary until you have a smooth paste.

Makes about 10 tablespoons. Refrigerate or freeze any paste that you do not plan to use immediately.

Seafood in Red Curry Sauce
from "From Curries to Kebabs" by Madhur Jaffrey

1 14-ounce can coconut milk, preferably left unshaken
3 tablespoons corn or peanut oil
5 tablespoons red curry paste
1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla) or to taste
1 teaspoon thick tamarind paste (alternatively lemon juice)
1 teaspoon brown sugar (alternatively, palm sugar)
1-2 pounds of mussels, fillets of sea bass, snapper, peeled shrimp or squid
salt to taste (if applicable)
4 fresh kaffir lime leaves or 1 teaspoon julienned lemon rind
15-20 fresh basil leaves, preferably (Thai), or a handful of fresh chopped cilantro

Carefully open the can of coconut milk without disturbing it too much and remove four tablespoons of the thick cream that will have accumulated at the top. Stir the remaining contents of the can well and set aside.

Pour oil and coconut cream into a large nonstick lidded pan or wok and set over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add curry paste. Stir and fry until oil separates and the paste is lightly browned. Reduce heat to low and add fish sauce, tamarind paste, sugar and ¾ cup of water. Stir and taste for a balance of seasonings.

Cover and simmer on very low heat for five minutes. Stir in reserved coconut milk. If using fish, shrimp or squid, lightly dust with salt. (Mussels do not need to be salted.) Add seafood of choice, bring mixture up to a simmer, cover and cook until done. Mussels are done when shells open, less than five minutes.

Garnish with herbs; serve with naan or over rice.

Makes 2-3 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 31, 2008; 10:51 AM ET Discoveries , Seafood , Sustainability
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This looks awesome! Kim, how does one prep mussels? I have always wanted to make them but they scare me a lot!

Posted by: sava | March 31, 2008 11:53 AM

Sava, no need to be scared. Bring home that bag of mussels and place them in a bowl. If you see anything cracked or broken, discard. Place a damp dish towel on top and place in fridge until ready to cook. If you're planning to wait a day, place that bowl in a large bowl surrounded by ice. Don't place mussels directly over ice.
When ready to cook, rinse mussels under cold water and inspect each one. You may see some hairy stuff by the edge; pull on it or trim with a pair of shears -- this is called the beard. For a mussel that's ajar, tap on it; if it closes, it's good to go. If it remains open, my advice is to discard it. Some fish folks will tell you it's fine; my comfort level is, when in doubt, throw it out. When all mussels are rinsed, pat them dry with a towel and start cooking.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 31, 2008 12:09 PM

Hi Kim and the rest of the gang! Being an Asian, we love all types of seafood, mussels being one of my favorites.. the curry idea sounds great, though one of the simplest preparations we do is saute chopped onions and thinly sliced ginger (the more you put the more spicy it can get) then add the cleaned mussels, saute and cover for about 5 minutes then add about 1/2 cup water and it is just delicious! And I picked up from Ina Garten to make sure there isnt any sand/dirt in them, put the mussels in a bowl of cold water with about a tablespoon of flour and leave for about 10-15 mins and you'll see grits at the bottom!

Posted by: Meryll | March 31, 2008 12:26 PM

Hi Kim -- any idea how long the curry paste would last in the fridge? I'm hoping a couple of weeks, but don't want to chance anything.

Posted by: Veggie in DC | March 31, 2008 1:18 PM

Veggie in DC: the key is an airtight container. In the fridge, I think a few weeks is a good bet; in the freezer, you'll have it for a few months. P.S. Was thinking how nice this paste would be with eggplant....

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 31, 2008 1:26 PM

That's it, Kim - I'm moving in. This dish looks and sounds wonderful! How and where did you buy your mussels? Do they come in a bag or do you grab handfuls? Did you talk to a fishmonger who let you know when they arrived fresh? Thanks...

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | March 31, 2008 1:38 PM

Hello Kim

Reading through the list of ingredients, it's a goodie. As a fan of makrud aka kaffir lime, I'd use more than a slice of the peel, I'd use from 2-4 long slices.

For "shrimp paste" I'd opt for belacan, also spelled blachan, the Malaysian version.

Posted by: David Lewiston | March 31, 2008 2:25 PM

I cannot personally attest to this, but I've read in several places that the taste of the curry paste is much deeper/better when using a mortar and pestle rather than a food processor. Kim, maybe you can give this a test when you have time to set aside.

Posted by: Mortar vs food processor | March 31, 2008 3:12 PM

A few years ago, when I shot a video on making Thai green curry, I made the curry paste using a mortar and pestle (see link below). As much as I love the physical sensation of pounding, I was happy that my double batch of curry paste could be formed easily in the food processor. I did not taste a difference in the results at table, either!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 31, 2008 3:46 PM

Awwh, man! Now I've got one more labor intensive thing to do. My wife is getting tired of dinner at 10. I guess she'll have to suffer a little more (but it hurts sooooo good).

Seriously, this looks fun. I still have a can of Thai curry paste and am curious to compare the tinned stuff with the real thing.

Now, off to enjoy some Tom Yum soup. No, really. I happened on the blog as I was preparing a family favorite. The aforementioned wife has a cold and there's nothing like a spicy soup to do what's good for you.

Thanks Kim!


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | March 31, 2008 8:10 PM

Sounds wonderful to me!

Morning all!

Posted by: TBG | April 1, 2008 9:53 AM

Yum. Now for some Cincinnati Chili Dogs for breakfast!

Posted by: dbG | April 1, 2008 10:28 AM

It went through! I didn't think it had.

What an April Fools Day, eh?

Posted by: TBG | April 1, 2008 11:06 AM

Thai paste looks really good. I like the homemade pastes and sauces because you know exactly what's in them. The same principle applies to mole. Make a big batch, freeze the paste; and when you want to use some, add some onion, garlic etc. Voila!

Posted by: Dave | April 2, 2008 7:31 AM

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