I’ve been wanting to do a particular dish for a while now, but since apparently winter is the best time to do it for seasonality purposes, I’ve had to wait… and then wait again since other people kept pushing plans off (you know who you are!). But, I finally found a reason and time in this dreary winter to cook up a pot of French-style mussels, Moules á la Marinière.
There’s not much history I found in this dish, a very simple, quick-to-put-together pot recipe of mussels, wine, garlic/shallots and butter, finished with parsley, steamed together only a few minutes since, I mean, it’s mussels. Did find talk of an Irishman in the 1300’s who’s claimed to have invented the first methods of mussel farming (something about finding a whole bunch clinging to some shipwreck wood), though it’s semi debated as they usually are, and not the kind of history I care much about. But that’s fine; I got to go down to our awesome local seafood specialist shop, and with me starting a brief vegetarian diet soon it brought me to wandering some other fun markets nearby that I rarely get the chance to explore anymore. Oh, and still had to re-do the escargot for some family, so yet another boon (two great dishes to have side-by-side).
So yeah, think that’s all I gotta say on the matter. Let’s get to yummy mussels.
A Word On…
Mussels: Whether there’s a way to figure out what French species is historically used in the northern part of the country, along with a way to obtain them, or not is out of my range of study at the moment. What I can tell you, however, is that one usually sticks with the common small-shelled, blue mussels you normally find en masse at restaurants and the seafood section. And it was this style I was going for, and would have had if I was able to do the dinner a few week back as planned… but of course this meal got pushed back so many times, and I was quite determined to do it while it’s still winter and thus proper shellfish season, that the final day I was ready to do it, they had absolutely none.
Now, I should pause to say that yes, I could have likely drove to a Whole Foods or other place of business and gotten some blue mussels there. But I would much rather get a notably different mussel type at a Seafood-focused shop that only gets in product that is good quality, highly fresh, sustainable and in-season, and as such a place that I know has great items and is one I want to support, than to go to a place that, though I’m sure is also quality, still leaves me wondering.
So instead of the classic Prince Edward (typical species of the blue/purple/black mussels we get in), I got the notably bigger Swan Island, at times known for having simpler and perhaps even earthier/muddier tastes to it. Which gets me into talking about cleaning mussels, cuz these guys are DIRTY!
Those who are somewhat familiar with, or have heard about, handling mussels know they always need a bit of cleaning. Unlike clams, probably want to avoid soaking though, with how wary one has to be to make sure they get the salt level content right (put simply, soaking could kill them). In which case, we need to rinse off all the mussels to get any dirty and grit from the surface; and in the case of the swan and other ‘wilder’ species, which often will still have spots of lichen or other growth on them, this also should be accompanied by a nice shell scrubbing, getting them nice, smooth, and pretty for the pot.
After that we need to take care of the Beards; basically a hairy-looking tendon sticking out from the side, this normally helps them grip to surfaces, and is not only fully inedible but could also shed into the broth. They’re best removed by tugging off to the side and pulling down firmly; they are a bit tough let me tell you, I myself thought I could just do it with my fingers, as so:
Boy was I a moron! Pliers worked MUCH better, especially when only a little bit was sticking from the shell. After that they ripped out much quicker and cleaner, now leaving me with a nice bag of happy little bivalves. Don’t they look adorable!
Now they just had to survive until cooking time. And I’m sure you’ve all heard by now: don’t cook any dead mussels or clams, which you can tell if they’re open and STAY open (a few raps on the counter will convince an alive one to re-close… though I did have quite a few cheeky bastards who kept laughing and mocking me while cleaning. I ate them last….), or ones that have broken shells. And they can turn rather quickly and fast, which is why we buy them on the same day, and the closer to cooking you can wait to buy and clean, the better. One can pick them up the day before, I heard, think there was a strategy of keeping alive with a bag of ice over the top, colander set over a bowl and such… but I’ll just keep it fresh. No risk, tastes better.
Wine: Ideally, one would use a French white wine for the broth, of a decent quality (doesn’t have to be great or pricey, but not horrible), which I probably would have looked to use myself. But I had this bottle of random Italian roero left in the fridge after a few weeks… it was convenient and good mainly for cooking now (still better than cheap cooking wine in stores). Don’t you judge me!!… I do enough of that myself.
Fat: One could say there are two types of moules mariniere; those finished with butter and those with cream. I’ve seen about equal showcasing of each, and can’t find any proof of one seeming more traditional than the other, so right of choice simply goes to personal preference. As my last dish, Coquilles St-Jacques, used a cream-finished sauce, I thought I’d go for the butter finishing, wherein one tosses in some cold butter into the broth at the end, whisking to emulsify.
Or, in this case, some Compound Butter; not for any particular reason of keeping to French culinary practices, but because I apparently forgot to buy fresh parsley on my gosh-darn shopping trip to sprinkle on at the end. Whoops! Good thing I still had leftover Escargot Butter, full of the garlic, shallots, and herbage, exactly the flavors I needed anyways. Though now that I think about it, seems I’m making slight substitutions and allowances for every part of the recipe tonight. Hey, what’d I just say about judging me?
Moules a la Mariniere
2 lbs Prince Edward or other Blue Mussel
4 oz Butter, Chilled
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
3 Shallots, Minced
¼-1/2 cup White Wine (by personal preference)
2 Tb Chopped Parsley
Salt and Pepper
2 Tb Butter
3 Garlic Cloves, minced
2 Shallots, minced
¼-1/2 cup white wine
3 oz Herb-Garlic-Shallot Compound Butter
- Clean mussel shells under rinsing water, set aside.
- Heat pot on stove to Medium. Throw in 1 oz of butter, 3 minced garlic cloves, 2 minced shallots, and sweat until softened and translucent.
- Add one, letting it come to a strong simmer before turning to the mussels.
- Check mussels, throwing away any dead bivalves (opened and will refuse to close, the snobby bastards), and throw into the pot along with any remaining garlic and shallots. Cover and let simmer 3-5 minutes, as needed, until all or almost all have opened and cooked.
- Remove from heat and add chilled regular or compound butter, mixing and swirling quickly to emulsify into the broth (Note: may be best to remove mussels before finishing the sauce).
- Season with salt and pepper, garnish and toss with chopped parsley, and transfer to serving bowl.
- Enjoy along with a good chunk of crusty baguette.
It’s hard to give a total verdict when I wasn’t able to use the ideal mussel varieties, but I found some pleasant results in the ones utilized. Firstly, the big size meant a lot LESS shells I had to clean (though there’s a possibility I wouldn’t have needed to scrub the other ones…); secondly, the flavor perhaps wasn’t the same, but I found nothing unappealing about the swan meat at all. In fact, it was big, plump, and had this fatty richness to it that I can’t quite decide. With the butter and wine sauce and bread, it was a delightfully scrumptious experience; the almost raw garlic/shallot flavors of the compound butter cutting through and brightening the deeper see and fat flavors nicely, while the subtle cooked flavors bolstered the base. Obviously the best part is dipping the mussel, still in shell, into the broth to get all the juicy, rich, wet flavors at once. And of course who can argue the delights of taking leftover baguette and just dunking it in pure mussel-wine-butter broth at the end of the meal? It’s just sinful…
Points of change? I think I may have added more wine that desired, I probably did at LEAST ½ a cup. Probably should have taken the mussels out before adding the butter, it didn’t really emulsify like I wanted. And of course I would have rather had fresh parsley to do this the simpler, more classic way that I initially desired. But still love the outcome nonetheless.
A white wine based off of Sauvignon Blanc made in the far eastern edge of the Loire River, just north of France’s center (and NW of Chablis), this somewhat chilly continental climate area produces a clean, refreshing version of this intensely aromatic grape varietal, often foregoing a lot of the pungent fruit, grassy, and richer flavors seen in good Marlborough and California styles for something that usually focuses purely on minerals, green berries, a grapefruit or other citrus. Strong with character and acid, but with leaner body style from the shorter ripening periods, it’s often a great wine to cut through delicate dishes that also contain rich fats, much like seafood with a good presence of cream and/or butter. The tightened, raw green flavors often compliment the herbs and other aromatics, the noted mineral notes (the twin regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume often characterizing a certain extra quality from the unique silex, flinty soils their grapes are planted in, sometimes almost like light gunpowder), and a bit of fleshiness that one can rarely get rid of from sauvignon that I just love with that extra bit of meatiness from mussels and clams.
If you can get a bottle it’s definitely worth it; both a great wine on its own or with food, even pairs well with cheese. However they can be pricey, but if you find the right store, there are a few sub regions within Eastern Loire close by that also offer similarly styled white wine at much better prices (it’s been a while since my studies so I forget specifically which, just ask one of the employees and they should be able to help).
Something I got at a better price, and by now maybe a year after when I’d look to drink it myself (though the great thing about Sancerre, so much acid it’s a notably longer-lasting white wine), it came with an even richer, sort of more fleshy/viscous mouthfeel than what I normally come to expect. Which I think turned out to my benefit with the larger Swan Island mussels I grabbed; with that soft, almost fatty texture to the meat, the wine blended and heightened this happy experience even further when mixed on the palate. And of course it still had plenty of acid to stand up to and cut the richly tart broth, alongside certain herbal-ground notes that complimented the compound butter and garlic flavors. A very pleasant companion for the evening.
Secondary Pairing – Lager
I’m not sure when the last time I offered a lager for one of my dishes was, it could have been really recent, but February in cold regions deserves cold-fermented beer. And opposite to the nights where mussels are treated as a fine, delicate course in a romantic evening, it also contains the personality of just being attacked in large bowls while enjoying a relaxing afternoon at a café. At those situations, sometimes you just want a cold, frothy, creamy light beverage to gulp down along with the salty-rich flavors. Especially if eating this with their truly classic partner, the fried potato strip (moules-frites anyone?).