During the 1970s, in my early days as chef/owner of Ross’ North Fork Restaurant, mussels were an exotic ingredient in America while in Europe the Spanish, French, Italian, Belgian and Dutch people were consuming them by the bushel. Mussels are now common and readily available on the North Fork, but are not perceived as elegant or as widely appreciated as oysters, clams and scallops.
Actually, virtually all of the mussels that we consume locally are farmed on Prince Edward Island. Available year-round, they are nutritious and very inexpensive compared to other shellfish. They are also very easy to prepare.
Here are some recipes that you might want to try as a first course for Christmas dinner or for a simple supper during the holidays.
Mussels en Croustade (France)
Purchase 2 pounds of mussels, soak in cold water and remove the beards.
Cut off the tops of 8 crusty dinner rolls and scoop out the soft centers with a spoon. Brush the insides with melted butter and place on a foil-lined sheet pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until golden. Remove and keep warm.
Place the mussels in a soup pot with 1 cup white wine. Cover, bring to a boil and cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Set a colander over a bowl and drain the mussels, reserving the broth. Remove the mussels from their shells and set aside.
Heat a saucepan and add 3 tablespoons butter. Chop the white parts of 3 leeks and add to the pan. Cook, covered, at low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup flour to make a roux and continue cooking at medium heat. Pour in 2 cups of the mussel broth and 1 cup heavy cream. Simmer the sauce until it thickens and season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper. Stir in the mussels and 2 tablespoons chopped chives.
Fill the warm rolls with the mussels and pour the sauce over them.
Serves 4-8 people as either a first course or an entrée.
Mussel Paella (Spain)
Prep 2 pounds of mussels as in the above recipe and place them in a soup pot with 2 cups water. Cover, bring to a boil and cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Drain the mussels into a colander over a bowl, reserving the broth. Remove three-quarters of the mussels from their shells, saving the rest for garnish.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir in 1 chopped Spanish onion and 3 minced cloves of garlic. As the onions soften, stir in 1 cup long-grain white rice and 8 ounces diced chorizo sausage. Season with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes. Add 2 cups of the mussel broth and bring to a boil.
Soak 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads in hot mussel broth and add to the pan. Cover, lower the heat and simmer until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes, 1 package of frozen peas and the mussels. Continue cooking at low heat for 10 minutes and garnish with chopped cilantro and Kalamata olives if desired.
Mussels Steamed in Beer with Pommes Frites (Belgium)
Prep 2 pounds of mussels as in the above recipes.
Soften 4 tablespoons butter and add the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan. Stir in 1 chopped leek, 2 minced shallots, 2 teaspoons minced garlic and 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes. Cook briefly and add the mussels along with 1 bottle of beer. Cover, bring to a boil and cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Drain the mussels into a colander set over a bowl, reserving the broth.
Discard half of the shells, leaving the mussels on the half-shell. Place them in pasta bowls and keep warm.
Pour the reserved broth into a clean saucepan and reduce by half. Swirl in the cold butter mixture and pour over the mussels.
For the pommes frites, peel 4 russet potatoes and slice into quarter-inch sticks. Heat 1 quart canola oil in a Dutch oven and blanch the potatoes for 3 minutes. Remove and set aside on a paper towel-lined tray.
Close to service time, reheat the oil and cook the potatoes until golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Remove, drain again on paper towels and sprinkle with coarse salt. Serve with the mussels.
Notes: It is important to purchase very fresh mussels, as they are more perishable than other shellfish. When you soak them in cold water they should close tightly, although they may be open when exposed to the air. Many cookbooks call for you to discard mussels that don’t open during cooking. This is a fallacy. Except for those filled with mud, most mussels are fine when cooked and pried open.
When reserving the cooking liquid, be sure to let the sand settle to the bottom and pour off the top broth for making the sauce.
Happy holidays to all my readers and thank you for following my column.
Sincerely, John Ross