á la grecque: our Greek table, 256pp.
by Pam Talimanidis
Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2009
Cooking on page 32
Pam Talimanidis got sucked in to running the Á la grecque restaurant in Aireys Inlet in 2004. That’s when her husband, Kosta, ignored her pleas of ‘no way’ and bought the premises on the southwest coast of Victoria.
By then, the couple had already been in the restaurant industry for almost 30 years, running Kostas Taverna in Lorne.
They decided to make the new venture a family restaurant, not only for their customers, but for themselves as well. The food is seasonal, fresh and simple. Talimanidis uses locally caught mussels for this recipe, but that’s not an option in Canberra.
Mussel, tomato and basil soup (plus fish stock)
120 ml olive oil
2 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 ripe tomatoes, skinned and diced
1 litre fish stock
500 g mussels, scrubbed clean and beards removed
150 ml white wine
1/2 cup basil, chopped
60 ml Pernod
freshly ground black pepper
basil oil or chilli oil (optional) to serve
Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Add the fish stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, put the mussels and white wine into another large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Cook over a low–medium heat, shaking the pan gently from time to time. Check after 4 minutes and discard any mussels that haven’t opened. Tip into a colander and reserve the cooking liquid. Strain this liquid through a clean muslin cloth to remove any sand or grit.
Set aside about a quarter of the mussels to serve in their shells as garnish. Remove the mussel meat from the remaining shells and add to the simmering soup. Add the basil and Pernod and season with pepper. Taste the soup before adding some of the reserved mussel cooking liquid. You want the mussel flavour, but it can be very salty.
Simmer the soup gently for a few minutes, but do not allow it to boil, as the mussels will shrink and become tough and rubbery. Divide the reserved mussels in their shells among 6 soup bowls and pour the soup over them. Drizzle with a little bail or chilli oil (if using) and serve straight away.
1 stalk celery
6 stalks parsley
3 sprigs thyme
2 litres water
700 g fish pieces, scaled and well rinsed
10 whole black peppercorns
Wash all the ingredients and herbs thoroughly. Chop the vegetables roughly then put them into a stockpot or large saucepan with the parsley and thyme. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 40 minutes.
Add the fish pieces and return the stock to a gentle boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered. Skim the stock if any impurities rise to the surface.
Strain the stock through a colander, discarding the solids, then taste and season with salt and pepper to your liking. If not using straight away, when the stock is completely cold, divide it into batches and refrigerate or freeze.
Makes about 1.5 litres.
How it played out
Our farmers’ market has great specials on Sunday afternoons, and I bought a kilo bag of New Zealand’s excellent green-lip mussels for $6. Bargain. The next day, when I started this recipe in the morning, I told Poor John there would be mussel soup for lunch.
Then I proceeded to make both recipes as written, except for using double the amount of mussels because we love them. Making the stock was straightforward. I had 670 grams of fish fillets in the freezer, so I thawed them out overnight. While the stock simmered, I steamed the mussels, strained them through a kitchen wipe, and set them aside.
Then I made a huge blunder—I left the house to run an errand! Sounds innocent enough, but nope. I returned about 12:05pm to find the fish stock suspiciously low.
Me: Have you already had lunch?
Poor John: Yes, I had the mussel soup in the pan.
Me: Did you notice there weren’t any mussels in it?
Poor John: I did. I wondered about that.
Me: And you ate it anyway?
Poor John: Yes!
He’d polished off about half the stock I’d made, along with half of the cooked vegetables. 🙂
So instead of having plenty of fish stock to work with, I had almost 750ml (or three cups instead of four). It was an annoyance but not a disaster, so I acted like a grownup and topped up the fish stock with chicken stock.
The other hitch was removing most of the mussels from their shells. I usually leave the mussels intact, which means everyone gets to fiddle with their own shells. But I did these myself and it took a lot more time than I expected.
But at least the soup was ready and Poor John enjoyed a second helping along with me.
While the soup was delicious and beautiful, I’m not likely to make it again. From go-to-whoa (Aussie slang for from-start-to-finish) it was fiddly. It took hours to make, although I repeat that I did pop out for a few errands. I started on the stock about 10am and sat down to my bowl of soup about 3pm.
I reckon this is exactly the right kind of recipe for a restaurant, where there are plenty of hands to deal with all the steps. Or make it for a dinner party and tell the guests exactly how much effort went in to making their starter. 🙂
I may not have been able to buy locally caught mussels for this recipe, but we caught lots of piranhas on a fishing expedition in Brazil. Amazing how easy they are to catch. Currently we are travelling in the southwest of the USA, enjoying the national parks, but not much in the way of seafood.