I love to set a big bowl of freshly-steamed mussels down in the middle of a dinner party and watch what happens. Some guests dive in with gleeful abandon while the shellfish newbies hang back to see how it's done. Either way, soon everyone is grabbing mussels from the bowl, slurping from the shells, and fighting over the last chunks of bread to sop up the sauce. It's a happy, playful, messy scene that never fails to get the party going.
I'll often steam a quick batch of mussels for a weeknight dinner in nothing but a bit of white wine, broth, and some shallots. This is a fine (and ridiculously easy) route for dinner parties, but I also like to change it up with something like this Thai red curry. Making the coconut milk base only takes a few extra minutes as guests settle in with drinks, and the sweet-and-spicy curry with the sweet-and-briny mussels make an irresistible pairing.
The mussels themselves require little preparation. Most mussels that you find at the seafood counter are farm-raised, which is a sustainable choice for mussels, and they are already pretty clean when you pick them up. Most just need a quick scrub and a check for the "beard" before they're ready to be cooked.
Mussels are best consumed on the same day you buy them. Until you're ready to cook, store them on top of ice in the fridge. Be sure to loosen the packaging around the mussels to allow airflow so the mussels can breathe. Discard any mussels with broken shells, that don't close up within a few minutes after you tap them gently on the counter, or that don't open after cooking.
Two to three pounds of mussels is a good meal for four adults or an appetizer for a crowd. You'll want to set out plenty of napkins to catch drips and forks for those who prefer to spear their mussels instead of slurp them. Have an empty bowl handy to for the discarded shells. Beyond that, just step back and let your guests go to town.
Thai Red Curry Mussels
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 to 8 as an appetizer
2 to 3 pounds mussels 1/2 yellow onion, sliced thinly 1 red bell pepper, sliced thinly 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 inch ginger, minced (about 1 tablespoon) 4 tablespoons red curry paste 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 tablespoon fish sauce 1 14-oz can coconut milk 1/2 cup chicken broth 1 lime, cut into wedges 1 ciabatta loaf, thinly sliced and toasted
Pick over the mussels, discarding any that are broken or that don't close within a few minutes after tapping them gently on the counter. Clean and de-beard the remaining mussels. Set the cleaned mussels in a bowl near the stove.
Film a large skillet with olive oil and set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and the peppers. Cook until they are soft and the onion is translucent. Stir in the garlic and ginger, and cook another 30 seconds.
Add the curry paste, brown sugar, and fish sauce to the vegetables and stir to coat evenly. Shake the can of coconut milk thoroughly before opening it, then pour it into the pan along with the chicken broth. Bring the curry to a simmer and let it cook until reduced and slightly thickened.
Add the mussels to the pan and cover. Cook for 4-5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until all the mussels have opened. Discard any mussels that haven't fully opened after 5 minutes.
Transfer the mussels and curry to a serving bowl. Squeeze half the lime over top and tuck the remaining wedges around the bowl. Eat immediately with the toasted baguette for dipping into the curry sauce.