Mussel, spinach and bacon gratin

Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a starter

This is a recipe from Hugh's book in which the shells don't feature in the end product. It's a very comforting dish and great for sharing. Mussels are at their best in the colder months and I would strongly recommend using sea spinach if you can can get your hands on it. Sorry Hugh, I've bastardised your recipe a bit here, but I know you like seaside foraging!

2tbsp white wine
1 shallot, diced
1kg mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1tbsp olive oil, plus a little more to finish
150g smoked bacon or pancetta, diced fairly small
1 fat garlic clove, finely chopped
About 400ml whole milk
50g unsalted butter
50g plain flour
500g spinach, thoroughly washed, tougher stalks removed
A squeeze of lemon juice
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
50g cheddar or Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

Place a large pan over a high heat and add the wine, 2 tablespoons of water and the diced shallots. Bring to a simmer, then throw in the mussels and cover with the lid. Let them steam open in the pan for 3-4 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice. Remove the mussels from the pan with a slotted spoon (discarding any that have remained fully shut) and set aside until they are cool enough to handle. Pick the mussels from their shells and set aside. Strain all of the cooking liquor through a fine sieve, or a coarse sieve lined with a cloth.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the bacon and sauté gently until it starts to crisp up. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute or so, being careful not to let it burn. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl.

Now you need to make a béchamel sauce. First combine the reserved mussel cooking liquor with enough milk to make 500ml and heat gently in a pan. Melt the butter in a separate pan. When it is foaming, add the flour and stir well to make a smooth roux. Gradually add the warmed milk, stirring well after each addition to prevent lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 4-5 minutes to give a smooth, creamy sauce.

Drop the spinach into a large pan of boiling water and cook for a minute, until wilted. Drain, leave to cool, then squeeze out excess water with your hands. Chop the spinach roughly.

Fold the bacon, mussels and spinach into the béchamel sauce. Season with freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Divide the mixture between 4 buttered shallow ovenproof dishes (or 6 ramekins if you're serving it as a starter) or spread it evenly into a large buttered gratin dish.

Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs, plus the cheese if using, and trickle over a little olive oil. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 200C/gas mark 6 for 10-12 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Serve piping hot, with crusty bread.

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