Here is the simplest version of this most typical of French methods for cooking mussels. They are steamed open in a big pot with wine and flavorings, and it takes only about 5 minutes. Then the mussels, shells and all, are dipped out into soup plates, and the cooking liquor is poured over them. Each guest removes the mussels one by one from their shells with fingers or a fork and discards the shells into a side dish. In addition to shell dish and fork, provide your guests with a soupspoon for drinking up the mussel juices, a big napkin, and a finger bowl. Along with the mussels serve French bread, butter, and a chilled, light, dry white wine such as Muscadet, dry Graves, or one of the Pouillys.
Yield: For 6 to 8 people
2 cups of light, dry white wine or 1 cup dry white vermouth
½ cup minced shallots, or green onions, or very finely minced onions
8 parsley sprigs
½ bay leaf
¼ tsp thyme
1/8 tsp pepper
6 Tb butter
6 quarts scrubbed, soaked mussels (see Notes)
½ cup roughly chopped parsley
An 8- to 10-quart enameled kettle with cover
Bring the wine to the boil in the kettle with the rest of the ingredients listed. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes to evaporate its alcohol and to reduce its volume slightly.
Add the mussels to the kettle. Cover tightly and boil quickly over high heat. Frequently grasp the kettle with both hands, your thumbs clamped to the cover, and toss the mussels in the kettle with an up and down slightly jerky motion so the mussels will change levels and cook evenly. In about 5 minutes the shells will swing open and the mussels are done.
With a big skimmer, dip the mussels into wide soup plates. Allow the cooking liquid to settle for a moment so any sand will sink to the bottom. Then ladle the liquid over the mussels, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.
Mussels Information and Preparation
Mussels, with their long, oval, blue-black shells and delicious pink-orange flesh are often called the poor man’s oyster. Clinging to rocks and piers along the seacoasts everywhere, they can be had for the picking at low tide. If you are gathering mussels yourself, take them only from places washed by clear, clean, sea water.
Scrubbing and Soaking Mussels
Before they can be cooked, mussels must have a rather long and careful cleaning process to remove all possible sand from their interiors, and to rid the shells of any slime and dirt which might spoil the excellent juices they render as they steam open. Discard any mussels that are not firmly closed, or which feel lighter in weight than the rest. Discard also any too-heavy mussels, as they may be nothing but sand enclosed between two mussel shells. Scrub each mussel very clean with a rough brush under running water. Then with a small knife, scrape off the tuft of hairs, or beard, which protrudes from between one side of the closed shell halves. Set the mussels in a basin or bucket of fresh water for an hour or two so they will disgorge their sand and also lose a bit of their saltiness. Lift the mussels out of the water into a colander, wash and drain them again, and they are ready to cook.
Note: Some cooks add flour to the soaking water on the theory that while the mussels eat the flour and become fatter and more succulent, they are at the same time disgorging their sand more thoroughly. Use 1/3 cup of flour for each 2 quarts of water, beating the flour and a bit of water with a whip first, to mix it thoroughly. Then, after soaking the mussels, lift them into a colander, and rinse them in cold water.
Beware of sand if you are using canned mussels. If there is any sand at all in the juices at the bottom of the can, soak the mussels in several changes of cold water. Eat one, and if it is sandy, continue washing the mussels. Good quality canned mussels may be substituted for fresh mussels in all but the first two of the following recipes; the canned juices may be used as stock for your sauce. Simmer the juices with a bit of white wine or vermouth, and fill out the quantity of stock called for in your recipe with boiling milk.