Years ago, I had a boss named Susanne who had a wonderful house on Fire Island. She was very kind in opening the place up to her staff—particularly those of us juniors who had few options on summer weekends: broil in the city or take a very long subway ride to reach a crowded beach. So Saltaire, the name of the little ‘village’ the house was in, was extra-ordinarily inviting. There are no cars on Fire Island. In fact the whole place is criss-crossed with wooden boardwalks. Once you get off the ferry from Long Island, you put all your gear into a wagon and head to wherever you are staying.
My hostess was one of the first “foodies” I’d ever met, although I don’t think the term was in use then. And it was she who introduced me to mussels. Mussels attached themselves to wooden piers that formed the breakfront on the bay side of Fire Island. Susanne had spent the better part of the summer checking on the mussels’ growth at one particular pier near her house. The mussels progressed nicely until, finally, a weekend when I was there was deemed the perfect time to harvest them and enjoy their salty goodness in a rich broth of garlic and tomatoes. Alas! They were gone! Someone else had made off with Susanne’s mussels! Now you would think we could have just moved on to the next piling. No such luck. Apparently, everyone in Saltaire loved mussels and had commandeered every last one.
Fortunately, mussels have entered the food vocabulary to such an extent that you can find them easily in the supermarket. These are all farm raised of course but they’re cleaner that way and their tiresome beards have been removed. They are wonderful by themselves with the simple garlic broth and parsley that’s the backbone of their recipe. But this recipe, which has echoes of Spain, includes Halibut, and a very good inclusion it is. Mussels are not noted for their flesh. Halibut is. So in one dish, you get the subtle sweetness of the mussels and the satisfying ‘meat’ of the halibut. I found this recipe in Fine Cooking Magazine. It just looks like it’s complicated. It really isn’t and it really delivers on several levels—a wonderful taste of the sea and a marvelous way to go meatless. Here’s the recipe:
Recipe for Halibut and Mussel Stew with Fennel, Peppers and Saffron
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, more for the bread
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced (2 cups)
1 medium fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, quartered lengthwise, cored, and thinly sliced crosswise (4 cups)
1 medium carrot, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise (3/4 cup)
1 small red bell pepper, stem, ribs, and seeds removed and discarded; flesh thinly sliced lengthwise (1-1/2 cups)
3 Tbs. tomato paste
2 medium cloves garlic (1 minced, 1 whole)
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Albariño
One 15.5-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/8 tsp. pimentón (smoked paprika)
2 pinches saffron
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 baguette slices, 3/4 inch thick
11 oz. skinless halibut fillets or other firm white fish, cut into 1-inch chunks
12 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Heat the oil in a 5-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, and bell pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and minced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic is fragrant, about 45 seconds.
Add the wine, bring to a simmer, and cook until the liquid has reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add 3-1/2 cups of water, the chickpeas, thyme, pimentón, saffron, and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the vegetables are tender and the stew has thickened slightly, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Position a rack 6 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler on high. Put the bread slices on a rimmed baking sheet and brush both sides with oil. Broil, flipping once, until both sides are golden-brown, about 4 minutes total. Remove from the oven and rub each slice with the whole clove of garlic.
Gently stir the halibut and mussels into the stew, cover, and simmer until all the mussels have opened and the fish is cooked through, 4 to 8 minutes. Discard any mussels that do not open. Ladle into wide, shallow bowls and serve with the garlic toasts.