Mississippi Mud Cats, Irish Mussels and Moules Gratiné

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419819075_20c0cdcab1_o1Waterlife: the theme for this month's "Heart of the Matter", promoting healthy eating for a healthy life.  I'll let everyone else explain how incredibly good fish and shellfish are for us and our hearts, full of Omega 3 and 6, and all that.   I'm taking a stroll down memory lane.

I grew up in the Upper Midwest.  For those of you unfamiliar with that term it refers to the 5 states in the center of the  U.S. farthest from everything but the Canadian border . 

We lived on the backwaters of the Mississippi (3 miles from the main channel).  Lots of water.  Lots and lots of mosquitoes!

Because we were over a thousand miles from either coast we didn't get a lot of seafood.  I was 16 before I knew what a shrimp looked like (okay, slight exaggeration there, but you get the idea).

Because we lived on the Mississippi we did get fish. 

The Mississippi is a muddy river so there are lots of bottom-feeding fish.  Big fish!  The Mississippi mud cat, a flathead catfish, can get to over 100 lbs (50 kilos) and a big carp can easily be 35 lbs (16 kilo).   We locals, of course, wouldn't consider eating either fish (bottom-feeders), but there was a local fishery that sent a big truck to New York every Friday all summer long, loaded with mud cats and carp.  One persons junk is another persons delicacy!  There were 'old-timers' in my town that made their living fishing (set-lines) and hunting rattlesnakes (sold them to Mayo Clinic for milking venom) in summer and trapping beaver, mink, raccoon and muskrat in winter.  I digress…

The fish that we caught to eat were 'pan fish': sunnies, crappies (pronounced  crah-pee), trout, and pike. I used to fish all summer long… right up until I discovered boys were for something other than digging bait.  I traded in my fishing pole for lipstick and that was that!

We knew what clams and mussels were.  They were the sharp things that we cut our feet on if we weren't careful where we went swimming.  Yeah, we learned to swim in the Muddy Mississippi.  When you have to swim against the current to get anywhere you learn how in a hurry!  Otherwise you end up in the dam…

I don't know if river shellfish are edible.  The first time I saw someone with a huge bowl of moules (mussels) in France I had no idea what they were eating…. or why!

Then we moved to Ireland.  I would see the young local lads head over to the sea wall across the road from us.  They'd hang over the wall, pick the mussels off the other side, pry them open and eat them.

I was curious!

Then, while driving along the coast I saw a cart sitting along side the road with a sign "Self-Service Musselman".  Upon closer inspection we discovered it held little black mussels.  On the side was a cash box, bags and a scale.  Help yourself, weigh it and put the money in the box.  The cart was almost empty of mussels; the cash box was full.  Only in Ireland (and probably not today!).

I was intrigued!

Fortunately, our local fishmonger was always very nice to this ignorant Yank and explained what to do with them.  The rest, as they say, is history!

Moules Gratiné

1 lb mussels Moules
1 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs olive oil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs chopped parsley
1 can whole tomatoes or 3 medium tomatoes, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs

Dump the mussels into a dry sink and look at them.  Any idea what to do with them?  I didn't the first time, but we learn.  First thing, after the clattering in the sink (I meant 'dump' literally) they should all be closed.  Any that are not tap lightly on the shell – if they do not close throw them away – they are already dead and we don't want them.  If they are not cleaned they need the barnacles scrubbed off with a brush and the beards – the stringy bit hanging out of the shell that they use to attach themselves, pulled off – just grab and pull toward the hinge.  Once they are cleaned sort through them tossing any that are very tiny (not worth the effort) or seem heavier than they should be (probably full of sand).  Set mussels aside.  Heat wine, bay leaf, thyme and 2 whole garlic cloves in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over high heat.  When wine is boiling dump in the mussels and cover.  Reduce the heat to medium and give the pan a shake every minute or two.  Uncover after 3 minutes – if most of the mussels are open remove from heat.  If not, cover and give them another minute.  When done, pour mussels into a colander over a large bowl to catch the cooking liquids.  Strain cooking liquid and set aside.  Chop onion and garlic.  Sauté over medium heat in 1 tbs olive oil in a large nonstick skillet until transparent.  Drain tomatoes and roughly chop.  Add to skillet and sauté 5 minutes.  Add 1/4 cup of reserved cooking liquid, reduce heat and simmer until it becomes a bit thick.  Add parsley.  Back to the mussels: using only the open mussels, break off half of the shell and place the mussel in its half-shell in a baking dish, 8 X 10 (20 X 25cm), 9 X 13 (22 X 30cm), whatever works; they should just fit.  Spoon tomato sauce evenly over the mussels, sprinkle with bread crumbs and drizzle with remaining tbs olive oil.  Bake at 400 F (200C) for 10 minutes.

Ilva, of Lucullian Delights is hosting Heart of the Matter this month.  Don't forget to stop by her blog after July 23rd for a recap of all of the great 'Waterlife' recipes.  For recaps of the other themes go to Heart of the Matter

17 thoughts on “Mississippi Mud Cats, Irish Mussels and Moules Gratiné”

  1. Katie-great story and a great recipe, I enjoyed both! Thanks for participating this month too!

  2. Wonderful post! I remember the first time someone presented me with a bucket of mussels and told me to clean them — I had no idea what to do. Thanks for a great description and beautiful recipe.

  3. Seafood takes me back to my roots:Rhode Island. Lobster, crab, chowda,clams on the half shell, and steamer clams. I can get some things fresh here, but for the most part, we would have to go to an expensive seafood restaurant to eat like we used to back in R.I. Mmmm…maybe Red Lobster this weekend?

  4. Ilva, thanks, I look forward to lots of good recipes. It’s a great event!
    Lydia, I was absolutely clueless! I still can’t get into those kids eating them raw… they were definitely fresh!
    Farmgirl, all foreign to me in the midwest! I still have never eaten clams (other than chowda) There are a lot of bi-valves here that I am clueless about, too!

  5. I so enjoyed your stories of your childhood in the Missippissi as well as that charming tale of the self-serve mussels in Ireland! 🙂 And those mussels gratine look delicious!

  6. Excellent Katie!
    There’s a veggie stand in Michigan near our cabin that puts out a cash box and leaves it unattended. Seems to work and has wonderful fruits & veggies.
    Your Moules Gratiné looks fantastic!

  7. Excellent post! I njoyed reading about your adventures in the Mississippi river. This is a great recipe, and a nice change from my usual mussel broth. I’ll try it next time I make mussels, which is about twice a month.
    p/s: These days, I buy mussels that are “pot ready” (scrubbed and bearded) because I have no time to mess around with them in the sink. It really saves me time.

  8. Hi Katie
    Of course NZ is famous for mussels…heralded in fact by Mario Batalli on his Molto Mario TV programme.
    Your recipe sounds delicious I shall have to make it. By the way in the country here there are still honesty boxes for vege. Hope that lasts

  9. Thanks, Joey, I hope the ‘Musselman’ is still there 😉
    Tanna, I love the idea of working cash boxes! It makes us seem so civilized…
    Nora, occasionally I can find them ‘pot ready’ and I grab them. There usually only about 50 cents more and it’s worth it!
    Gilli, yes I know about your famous mussels, even had them once (they deserve their reputation). Ours are much smaller. And you have honesty boxes, too – how wonderful! Must visit NZ!

  10. I love mussels but don’t get them fresh very often.
    I can’t believe you hung up your fishing pole.
    I keep mine pretty close by.

  11. Sue, I have to admit that I never cleaned the fish – my dad always had to. Lucky for him I never caught many…but, then, fishing isn’t neccessarily about the fish, is it?

  12. Great story. My first fish was a crappie and my daughter caught her first one last summer in Minnesota off a dock on a pop-can rod. She was so excited. But my experience with seafood was limited to Long John Silvers, until I moved to Hawaii…

  13. Meredith, Crappies are good… sunnies are better! You lived in Hawaii? Lucky you. My bil & sil live on the Kona coast! Love visiting them – freshly picked white pineapple…. and ono

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