We fell madly in love with Ireland during a holiday earlier this year. The country's western coast, affectionately known as the Wild Atlantic Way, is a place of fresh sea air, bracingly powerful winds, fields of scrubby heather, near-daily rainbows and millions of scruffy sheep; rugged shores, dramatic cliffs and breathtaking views; a universal small-town feeling and friendliness graciously extended to wayfaring strangers.
Unsurprisingly, we frequently found ourselves deep in conversation with the locals — typically about eating and drinking, preferably over a bowl of something steamy or a pint of something dark and frothy. In addition to their excellence at preparing their bounty skillfully and serving it generously, the Irish we met spoke with intense pride about the things they grow, raise, harvest, make, brew and cook. There was literally a story behind every mouthful, and we attempted to unravel each.
The definition of a successful holiday for us is to not only seek the roads less traveled, but, along the way, collect delicious things to cook with. Standouts from Ireland ranged from heritage pork and parsnips to cured salmon and farmhouse cheeses. Blessed with 900 miles of coastline, it's no surprise we often turned to the Irish waters for our meals, and hidden in plain sight along the southern shores are some of the world's best mussels. The freshest, sweetest, juiciest ones we've ever eaten.
To highlight the locally harvested Roaring Water Bay mussels, we kept the recipe simple. To honor the region, we included just a few other Irish ingredients: smoky dry-cured bacon "rashers," ruffled savoy cabbage and a mild, grassy leek. And, instead of the wine that is traditional in preparations such as this, we included a new favorite local brew — several glugs for the mussels, the rest for the table. We easily ate a half-kilo of mussels each.
Ending our journey — like sopping up the juices in our bowls — left us wanting more. It was a bittersweet departure, but we are thankful for the experience and full of resolve to return someday soon.
- 3 pounds (1½ kilograms) medium fresh mussels
- 2 slices dry-cured smoked bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
- 1¼ cups (10 fluid ounces) pale beer (such as a Kölsch, blonde ale, witbier or Gueuze), divided
- 1 small-to-medium-sized savoy cabbage, cored and sliced into thin ribbons
- 1 small-to-medium-sized leek, light green and white parts only, rinsed well and sliced into ½-inch thick rounds
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, divided
- Crusty bread or cooked pasta, for serving (optional)
- Rinse mussels in a large colander under cold water. Use your fingers or a sharp knife to remove any beards (the hairy clumps around the shell). Then, scrub the shells well with your hands or a vegetable brush.
- In a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet with a lid, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the cooked bacon to a plate lined with paper towels, and set aside. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the skillet.
- Return the skillet to medium heat. Add chili flakes and stir in ¼ cup of beer, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet with a wooden or silicone spoon.
- When the beer begins to bubble, add leek and cook 2 minutes, or until slightly softened.
- Turn heat down to medium-low, and add cabbage. Cover skillet with the lid and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is wilted. Taste and season with salt and black pepper if needed.
- In the meantime, add the remaining 1 cup of beer to a medium-sized saucepan with a lid and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add mussels. Cover and steam, shaking the pan a few times, until the shells begin to open, about 5 minutes.
- Using a slotted spoon or tongs, remove opened mussels to a large bowl. Cover the pan and continue simmering for another 3 to 5 minutes, transferring mussels to the bowl as they open. After 8 to 10 minutes of cooking, discard and do not eat any mussels that won't open.
- When all the mussels are removed from the saucepan, stir about ¾ of the chopped parsley into the beer broth. Taste and season with salt and pepper only if needed.
- Divide the cabbage-and-leek mixture between four wide bowls, topping each with ¼ of the mussels. Pour some of the broth over top. Then, add the reserved bacon and remaining chopped parsley.
- Serve at once with crusty bread or your favorite pasta, and a cold beer. Serves 4. Sláinte!