At Jar in Los Angeles, chef Suzanne Tracht gives an Asian inflection to steamed black mussels. She serves a bowl heaped with the sweet plump mussels in the shell and tops them with an emerald thatch of “water spinach,” or ong choy, a leggy Asian green. The idea is to swish the sweet plump mussels through the juices at the bottom of the bowl and eat each one with a sprinkling of grassy fennel salt made from fleur de sel, toasted fennel seed and lemon zest. Divine. At the restaurant, she also offers a tiny sauceboat of sumptuous lobster bearnaise. But that’s a bit like gilding the lily.
Black mussels with fennel salt
Place the garlic and the shallot in a large skillet with the olive oil over medium heat and cook until the garlic is fragrant and the shallot has just become translucent, about 2 minutes. Swirl the pan so the garlic moves and does not burn. Add the mussels. Turn the heat to high and coat the mussels in the oil, shallot and garlic. Add a dash of salt and pepper, then the wine. Cover and simmer until the mussels have opened wide, no more than 2 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels.
Arrange the mussels in a bowl and return the cooking liquid to the heat. Add the ong choy and the butter. Cook 1 to 2 minutes. The ong choy cooks down very quickly; you want this to remain brothy. Pour the liquid on top of the mussels and arrange the ong choy in a bundle on top. Serve while hot with the fennel salt (see related recipe) for sprinkling.
Using a mortar and pestle, lightly crush the salt, fennel seeds and zest together until lightly combined. (Makes a little less than a half cup.)