Tigres to the Rescue

Tigres (Spanish Stuffed Mussels)

In all honesty, I never expected to be bringing you this recipe. Well, certainly not now at any rate, when six weeks into your New Year’s resolutions (and mine – don’t remind me!) the last thing you need is a recipe instructing you to dust off the deep-fryer and plunge something béchamel-filled and crumb-coated inside.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and in this case I’m feeling pretty desperate after a string of recipe experiments so mediocre I don’t even want to want to bore you with the details. Let’s just say there was a chicken involved in one, an eggplant in another, and a chocolate cake in the third (I know, can you believe that there are chocolate cakes out there so mediocre that half of them end up in my trash? I certainly didn’t until I saw it with my own eyes). The worst part was that none of them was outright bad in a way that would have at least had some comedic value; they were all just dull to the point where the leftovers sat forlornly in the fridge until we were forced to guiltily toss them out. And unlike many people I like leftovers (and hate guilt), so you can imagine how unremarkable these were.

Anyway, I’m telling you all this not to get your sympathy, but in a feeble attempt to justify the unconscionable thing I’m asking you to do, namely to set a bubbling pan of oil on the stove in February and make these mussels. Not only do they happen to be the most delicious thing I’ve managed to produce in weeks – okay, okay, the only delicious thing – but just the act of making them seems to evoke lazy days under a warm Mediterranean sun, exactly the kind I catch myself daydreaming about all too often these days.

The funny thing is, when I ate these the first time, it never crossed my mind for a minute that I’d ever be making them myself. I was in Murcia, soaking up the December sun at an outdoor table in the Plaza de Flores and valiantly attempting to sample every tapa on offer, and although these tigres – with their buttery béchamel crowns covering shells full of spicy mussel mince – were wildly good, they struck me as an awful lot of work for something meant to be devoured in ten minutes before dinner. More importantly, though, the events that transpired later that night convinced me that I would never be able to even think about anything I had eaten that day again, let alone attempt any of it in my own kitchen. But then I got home, and try as I might to forget those tigres, I couldn’t – and I found that every time I did think about them, my stomach began to rumble, not with pain, but with hunger. And if that’s not a sign that something deserves a second chance, I don’t know what is.

While not difficult by any means, these tigres are indeed a bit time-consuming, what with all the steaming, simmering, stuffing and frying. For a small number of people they’re by no means too much work, particularly if you can conscript a bit of help, but I probably wouldn’t attempt to make enough for a really large party or anything (then again, I think a better reason for not making them for a large party is because you’d never manage to get any for yourself!). What really makes up for any slight inconvenience in preparing them, however, is the absolute certainty that there will be no suffering a silent fate at back of the fridge for these babies. But you already knew that…right?

Tigres (Spanish Stuffed Mussels)

If you, like me, love the flavor of mussels but have a hard time getting your head around their texture, then this is the dish for you. Finely-chopped mussels are cooked briefly with onion, pepper and tomato – and a dash of hot chili, whose unexpected heat apparently gives these ‘tigers’ their name – before being re-filled in their shells, covered with a thick layer of nutmegy béchamel, and briefly fried. Crispy, creamy, wake-your-mouth-up spicy and complementing just about any kind of pre-dinner drink, these tigres are just about the perfect tapa, though no one says they can’t stand in for a real meal either. You can certainly make them with frozen pre-cooked mussels, but – no surprise here – they won’t be nearly as good, since before they’re frozen they tend to be cooked to a texture just this side of rubber. That said, it is much less hassle to go the frozen route, so if you do I’ll be happy to look the other way.
Serves: 8 as an appetizer

2 lbs. (1kg) mussels, live or frozen, cleaned
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green Italian frying pepper, minced
1 small carrot, peeled and minced
2/3 cup (160ml) tomato puree or passata
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
5 tablespoons (75g) butter
1/2 cup (70g) flour
2 cups (500ml) milk
salt, pepper and freshly-grated nutmeg
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1-2 cups (250-500ml) fine, dry bread crumbs

olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
lemon wedges, for serving

Once the mussels have been thoroughly cleaned, remove and discard any that are broken or that do not close when lightly tapped. Pour 2 cups of water into a large heavy pot, add the mussels and cover tightly. Place the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. When you see steam escaping from under the lid, reduce the heat and simmer the mussels until they begin to open, about 5 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. When all the mussels have opened, pour out the liquid and immediately run cold water into the pot to cool down the mussels. When cool enough, remove the mussels from their shells, discarding any that haven’t opened. (If using frozen mussels, simply defrost and shell.) Set the shells aside. Place the mussels into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion, garlic, pepper and carrot, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and golden, about 15-20 minutes.  Stir in the tomato puree, sugar, cayenne pepper, salt and 1/2 cup water, and continue to cook for about 10-15 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is very thick. Stir in the chopped mussels, correct the seasoning and remove from the heat.

Make the béchamel. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, making a thick, pasty roux. Start adding the milk little by little, whisking the mixture vigorously after each addition until smooth. After all the milk has been added, bring the mixture to a gentle boil and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg (it should be very well-seasoned). Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for about ten minutes.

Pour the bread crumbs onto a medium-sized plate. Break the eggs into a small mixing bowl and lightly beat. Be sure that the inside of the mussel shells are clean (scrape off any soft matter with a paring knife) and gently separate any that are still attached. Fill each shell with enough of the mussel mixture so that it comes about halfway up the inside of the shell (you probably won’t use all your shells). Cover the mussel mixture with a generous spoonful of the warm béchamel, mounding it slightly higher in the middle and sealing it to the shell around the edges. Dip each mussel, filled side only, first into the beaten egg, then quickly coat in the bread crumbs. Place shell-side down on a baking sheet and refrigerate at least an hour, preferably more.

Pour the olive or vegetable oil into a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan to a depth of about 1 inch and heat it over medium-high until a crust of bread fries vigorously on contact. Carefully fry the mussels, in batches, shell side up, until the breadcrumbs are golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Serve immediately with spoons and lemon wedges.