Mussels are a great introduction to seafood. Easily available, simple to cook and packed with flavour – you can’t ask for more from your dinner. This recipe draws inspiration from the use of tomatoes and chilli peppers in West African cooking. It has an extra depth from the fantastically named alligator pepper.
Highly prized in West Africa, especially Nigeria where the Yoruba incorporate it into naming ceremonies for babies, this pepper comes in a dry pod that looks like an alligator’s back and has a warm bite of pepper mixed with a slight hint of black cardamom. (Use a mix of these if you can’t get alligator pepper.) Use this recipe as an excuse to try something new and to buy one of those huge cooking pots from Bibs Konsult on the corner of 6th Avenue in the Village.
First clean your mussels well. Pull the beards from them and discard any that are broken or are open and don’t close when tapped. Leave them to soak in cold water to clean out any grit while you turn your attention elsewhere.
Peel your sweet potatoes – I prefer the orange-fleshed ones here. Cut them into chips, making sure that they are all roughly the same size and thickness so they cook evenly.
Heat the vegetable oil to 75–80°C in a large pan. Once a cube of bread sizzles in the hot oil and turns brown without burning, it is ready for frying. Carefully drop about half the sweet potato chips in and fry for 3–4 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove the chips from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen roll or a clean tea towel. Repeat with the rest of the chips.
While the chips are frying, finely dice the onions and the scotch bonnet pepper. Heat the palm oil in a large saucepan and soften them both in it for about 3–4 minutes. Cut the alligator pepper pod in half, scoop the seeds out and grind them in a pestle and mortar before adding to the onion and chilli to cook out slightly. Cut your tomatoes in half and add to the pan. You don’t need any extra seasoning.
When the tomatoes start to collapse slightly round the edges, put the drained mussels in the pan. Pour in the water, put the lid on and cook for 3–4 minutes or until the mussels have opened and the sauce is starting to thicken. You may need a touch more water. Discard any mussels that haven’t opened.
Take the pan off the heat and leave the lid on while you dish up the sweet potato fries on a separate plate. Then serve the steaming hot mussels in bowls with a good amount of the tomato-rich liquor and dig in.
The best way to eat mussels is to use an empty shell to pick the meat out of the next one. Enjoy each flavoursome mouthful as the warmth of the chilli and alligator pepper builds a tingle on your lips and the pile of shells grows. Best eaten with an ice cold beer and a roll of kitchen paper to hand.
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