Mussels in puff pastry

This dish and the next were consistent winners during my restaurant days. We served one or the other or variations day and night, week in week out, and never once thought of how much butter was in them. I offer them to you now, to allow you to note how times change and how we must learn and change with them; but only after we have thought about the hows and whys, and decided positively that yes, this is the way to go. And then, and this is where I fall down oh so often, the discipline to hold the line, hold the line.

I guess all recipes evolve, either from your own work, or from another’s base, or from a combination of both. This mussel and asparagus tart started simply as a piece of warm bread, some butter, some mussels and some vegetables, all snatched together as a quick, late lunch after service. It became complex, not in its presentation, but in its preparation. The labour of preparation is worth it, for the ease of service. Dishes like this are marvellous for a very special list of dinner guests. If they are not worried about butter.

And don’t be concerned about the number of steps. Most of them are independent of the others, and can be done separately and simply. You don’t need to be an octopus to succeed here. Just committed.

2 mussels per portion and another half a dozen mussels for a mussel ‘mix’

½ onion, chopped roughly

1 stick of celery, chopped roughly

a few rashers bacon

2 hot chillies

150g butter for the inside of the tarts

bunch of basil — Basil is now available all year round, praise the Lord.

500g puff pastry

You must make your own for dishes like this. It is so much better, the commercial, frozen alternatives are not even worth considering. If you haven’t the time to make it, buy it from a favourite pastry shop.

a template in the shape of a diamond — It should be about 15 cm long and about 10 cm wide. From this you can shape your pastry.

1–2 cobs of corn, depending on the size

Slice the corn from the cob using a very sharp knife.

6 spears of asparagus per portion

Break away the woody bottom and discard. Retain the best end (about 10cm is plenty) and slice the remaining section very finely across its width.

1kg peas — Only use peas if you believe them to be at their best. There is nothing better than the best peas, nothing worse than the worst. If not peas, new broad beans.

egg yolk and milk for an egg wash 50g butter for the sauce juice of 2 lemons

a little good-quality white wine, if you have some open; if not, use some water salt pepper


Steam the mussels in a little bit of water with the onions and celery in a closed pot. When the mussels open, take them from the heat. Retain the mussel juice from the cooking process.


For the mussel paste: Cook the bacon quickly in a hot pan, or in the microwave, and allow to cool. Drain off any excess fat. Chop the bacon, the chillies and the half dozen mussels very finely. With your hands, work the 150g butter until it is very soft. In a bowl, mix the chopped ingredients with the butter, a little mussel juice and about 25 basil leaves, snipped roughly. Refrigerate until the mix is firm.


Cut the pastry into two and roll out each half as thinly as you can, making sure no butter exudes from the dough. Place in the refrigerator until quite cold. You will need tops and bottoms for each portion. Cut the pastry into diamond shapes, using the cardboard template. The top needs to be slightly thinner and cover more area than the base, so you will have to re-roll the top gently to make it larger. Prepare the top by folding the short corners gently together, and cut slats in the pastry from one narrow end through the middle to the other narrow end. Flatten the pastry once more. You will now have a ‘windowed’ top.


Now to stew the vegetables for the tart. Take half the mussel and butter paste. Set your oven to 180°C. Spread the corn, chopped asparagus ends and peas on a tray to go in the oven. Dot the mixture with the mussel paste and allow to cook slowly in the oven, until the paste has melted and the asparagus bits have softened. You may need to take the tray from the oven once or twice to work the vegetables about a little. Make sure the paste really does get into the vegetables. When the vegetables are done — about 12–15 minutes — take them from the tray, and allow to cool in a bowl.


Place the puff pastry bases on a cold baking tray. Take the other half of the mussel paste and rub a little on each bottom. To a dessertspoon of the prepared stewed vegetables, add two mussels per portion. Work the mix into a little mound and place each mound on the pastry bases. You might need more or fewer vegetables.

Moisten the edges of the pastries and join top and bottom together carefully, slicing away any untidy edges. With the back of a fork secure the joins. Refrigerate.


Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Whisk the egg yolk with a little milk and paint the top of the pastry with a brush. If you don’t have a brush, use your fingers or a paper towel. The egg-milk mix will ensure the pastries are a gorgeous golden brown colour when cooked. They will take at least 30 minutes to cook. When properly cooked the pastry flakes away like segments of old tiles. Don’t undercook the pastry. It should look as though it is only seconds away from being burnt.


The sauce: The sauce is nothing flash. Chop the butter into cubes. Bring the lemon juice to the boil. Add the wine/water (and some chopped leeks if you like). When the mix has boiled, remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. Take it easy, and it will emulsify quickly and easily. Taste for seasoning — it will certainly need salt, definitely pepper. Leave the saucepan at the side of the stove in a warm place. Taste for temperature just before serving. If it has cooled too much, just add a little more water and, holding the pan a few centimetres above the heat, just whisk it a little more.


The vegetables for the plate: When the tarts are cooked, set them aside while the asparagus tips cook in boiling salted water. The tarts will be very hot when they come from the oven. If they are left aside for a minute or two, the top layer of somebody’s mouth will probably be saved from burning! The asparagus tips will take only a few minutes, depending on their thickness. They are done when a knife cuts through them easily, but with resistance.


Pour a little sauce onto the plate. Arrange the tarts in the middle and criss-cross the asparagus spears on either side.

There is no doubt this is a brilliantly flavoured, superb dish, despite the apparent complexity of its making, or more likely its description, and it should not be removed from your diet forever just because of the butter. I would say try it once a year and love it, and look forward to it again the year after. And don’t serve it with a rich main course, or a rich dessert: they might have to carry you from the table.

There are all sorts of variations to this basic dish. Without the mussels, it makes for a perfect vegetarian number. You can replace the butter inside the tart with a low-fat cheese like ricotta, and the mussels with spinach, and drizzle the tart with a richly flavoured virgin olive oil.

Oh, an afterthought: if all that means not much at all, and you want to be mischievous, melt a little butter on the top of the tarts when they come from the oven!

WINE: You need a counter-puncher here — something to cut through the butter. Try a good bubbly. If French, Louis Roederer N.V. or Bollinger. If vintage, try one from a well-known house.