Food: Stock in trade

Mussel liquor is simply brill, says Simon Hopkinson

You know we chefs are always making stocks: veal, chicken, beef, lamb, game, fish and, more lately, by popular demand, the vegetable variety. Now, I say "we" because I am still a chef (although my torchon, has been temporarily hung up to dry) and have an interest in a restaurant, but, I have never been fond of making all these different stocks - and haven't done so.

The only one we ever continuously fabricate at Bibendum is the chicken one. Purist chefs such as Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place would mumble something about a misguided upbringing and poor husbandry. Well, we disagree over many things, but it is always with smiles and much drink.

I dislike veal stock almost more than any other. I know it can sometimes be a fine thing, but, more often than not, it becomes drastically over- reduced, almost turning into Marmite - even at three-star level! Lamb stock never actually tastes much of lamb if it is made in the way of bone- roasting and such.

Recently, I cooked a simple braised lamb shoulder bought from a Halal butcher in Portobello Road. It had been divested of all surface skin and fat, and its shoulder blade had been expertly removed. It was also very cheap, costing about six quid. All I did was to put two carrots, two onions, three sticks of celery, three cloves of garlic and some herbs and seasoning in the bottom of a heavy pot. The shoulder went on top, and two pints of water were poured over. Cooked in a very low oven for two to three hours it magically transformed itself into just the lamby-est thing you have ever eaten. The soupy stock that had exuded during the cooking was so indescribably good that I drank it separately from the meat, in a mug, with bottled mint sauce stirred in: lamb gravy without the bits. Heaven!

I have now become utterly sidetracked, prattling on, when the essence of this piece is supposed to be about mussels, and mussel stock in particular because I think it the very finest "fish stock" it is possible to make. In fact, you almost don't really have to make it at all; it just sort of happens whenever you cook mussels. And, by the way, I never make vegetable stocks; they're just so sort of p[r]issy really. People use them to make vegetable risotti a lot just now, but, honestly, the whole point about asparagus, artichoke, prima vera (spring vegetables) and alla Milanese (saffron) risotti is that they taste so much better when made properly - which is with meat or poultry stocks. For heaven's sake, the one from Milan should include a healthy amount of chopped beef marrow. Sorry... sorry, I will talk mussels now.

A two-kilo bag of mussels will give you at least a pint of stock, after adding only one small glass of white wine when you begin to cook them. The intensity is strong and more salty then you may like, but once lightly thickened with a judicious smear of beurre-manie (butter and flour kneaded together in equal quantities), a little cream, lemon juice and a generous spoonful of chopped parsley, it is transformed into one of the finest fish sauces imaginable.

Now, if you are aiming to make a cauldron of moules a la mariniere, you will wish to keep all the juices for the dish. However, there are plenty of other occasions where this mussel stock can be used for other fish dishes, sauces and soups. Freeze in cartons for when you need it.

It is useful to know that 2lb/900g of mussels, when cooked with 200ml/7fl oz of wine, will yield approx. 34 pint--1pint/400-570ml of liquor.

Fillets of brill with mussels and tarragon, serves 2

Although the mussel stock is fine just as it is, as mentioned earlier, there is no reason at all why the bones of the brill may not be added to the stock and simmered together for 15 minutes to add further flavour.

1 whole brill, weighing in at around 700g/112lb, filleted and skinned

900/2lb of mussels, scrubbed and well washed

100ml/4fl oz dry white wine

25g/1oz butter - plus a bit extra

2 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 tbsp tarragon vinegar

1 level tsp flour

75ml/3fl oz double cream

a little freshly-ground white pepper

3-4 sprigs fresh tarragon, leaves only, finely chopped

squeeze of lemon juice (optional)

Put the mussels into a large pot and pour over the wine. Bring up to a simmer, grasp the pot in both hands and shake the mussels so as to bring the ones on the bottom to the top. Do this a few times over a period of about five minutes, briefly covered in between each disturbance. Once all the mussels seem to be open (discard any that don't), tip into a colander suspended over another pot and allow to drip for a few minutes.

When the mussels have cooled off a bit, remove from their shells (do this over the pot containing the mussel cooking liquor, to catch any juices)and put into a bowl. Cover with some of the cooking liquor so that they keep moist. Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4.

Fry the shallots in the butter until softened. Add the vinegar and allow to evaporate completely over a high heat. Stir in the flour and blend in well, then pour in 150ml/5 fl oz of mussel liquor. Whisk well and bring up to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes until smooth and limpid. Add the cream, pepper, tarragon and lemon juice - if you think you need it. You should not need any salt due to the salinity of the mussels. Bring back to a simmer for a few minutes and then keep warm.

Smear an ovenproof serving dish with a little butter and lay in the fillets of brill. Season lightly and cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes or until the flesh is just cooked and firm (test with a fork by easing the flesh slightly). Re-heat the sauce together with the reserved mussels, and pour over the fish. Serve at once.

Mussels Rockefeller, serves 2

I recently read a recipe for oysters Rockefeller in a respectable weekly magazine that suggested, simply, that you were to chop a handful of spinach and three sprigs of parsley together and cover the oysters (one dozen) with this mixture, then bake in a hot oven for 4-5 minutes. It was further pointed out that the oysters should not be overcooked, but they should be hot, and that both the spinach and the oysters should retain their texture.

The dish described, apart from the inclusion of spinach and parsley, would have little in common with oysters Rockefeller, beyond the inclusion of spinach and parsley, and would emerge looking horrid, tasting of nothing, with the spinach scorched and dulled by the intense heat of the oven. (I am assuming that one was not supposed to have previously cooked the spinach- certainly, the recipe didn't say so, and, since its texture was explicitly to be retained during cooking, it suggests that one was not.)

The following recipe for the Rockfeller oyster mixture adapts beautifully for mussels. It was given to me by Gay Bilson, who runs the Bennelong restaurant within the Sydney Opera House. As you will see, it requires a little more work than simply flinging some chopped spinach and parsley over a few oysters/mussels. The Pernod and the celery, particularly, are essential to the mixture, as is the generous quantity of butter, which coheres and enriches the puree.

I have given you the recipe for Oysters Rockefeller before, but if any of you would like a copy, write to me here at The Independent.

350g/12oz young spinach leaves (the ready-to-use stuff in cellophane bags in the supermarket, is ideal)

15g/12 oz parsley, leaves only, preferably the flat variety.

1 small celery stalk, peeled and chopped

150g/5oz unsalted butter

2 shallots, peeled and chopped

1 tbsp Pernod

3-4 sprigs tarragon, leaves only, chopped

12 tsp Tabasco

generous pinch of salt

24 large mussels

2 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs

Lemons to serve

Fill a pan with water and bring to the boil. Plunge in the spinach and parsley, allow to just about return to boiling point, then drain in a colander. Immediately refresh under very cold running water until completely cold. Squeeze as dry as possible between two hands until no more liquid seeps out, and set aside.

Melt the butter in a deep frying- pan and in it, very gently, fry the celery and shallots until softened - they will almost simmer in this copious amount of butter. Tip the contents of the frying-pan into the goblet of a food processor, together with the Pernod, the cooked spinach, tarragon, Tabasco and salt. Puree until very smooth indeed. Tip into a bowl.

Pre-heat the oven to 450F/230C/Gas mark 8. Cook the mussels as described in the previous recipe. Remove the empty half of the shell of each mussel and discard (keep the juices, however, and freeze for use another day). Now, using a teaspoon, completely cover each mussel with a generous coating of the green puree (if there is any left over, it freezes well). Strew an oven dish (a paella pan, for example, would be ideal, looking fine at table as well as being practical), with some coarse salt so that the mussels will stay horizontal while baking.

Now carefully distribute a very fine showering of crumbs over the mussels - it matters not a jot that some fall on salty ground - and put into the oven on the top shelf. Bake for about 7 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are lightly to asted. Serve without delay and with some lemons to squeeze judiciously over each

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