One of my favorite things to eat is moules mariniere, mussels steamed with butter and white wine, but it isn’t a dish that’s easily made here in Arkansas. Or at least that’s what I thought before two very fortuitous things happened this week: Jess got me Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and we discovered some very inexpensive and fresh mussels at Whole Foods over on Rodney Parham. I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about Whole Foods in general – the prices are usually outrageous and you have to wade through a lot of unnecessary products to find something really worthwhile. I’ll give the seafood counter staff in Little Rock a lot of credit, though – the gentleman who helped us out let us really pick and choose which mussels we wanted and made sure that we got two pounds of good-smelling live ones, a nice change from some other local markets we’ve tried, all at a very reasonable $4.99/lb. We added bottle of sauvignon blanc from Mount Bethel winery in Altus and a loaf of crusty French bread and headed home to steam some mussels.
Choosing good mussels is, of course, the most important part of the dish. You want mussels that are shiny black and closed, and they should smell like rich, good seawater. If you pick up a mussel that is open, give it a good tap and if it closes, it’s still alive and good to go. Don’t buy any that stay open or feel too light – we want these little morsels to be alive when we get them home, not dead and smelling like an old tuna boat. After selecting your mussels, take them home and soak them in cold water for an hour or so – this will allow them to discharge any sand that might be present in the shells. Some of your shellfish might have little “beards” attached; pull those off right before you get ready to cook.
When you are ready to cook, here’s what the Les Halles Cookbook says you need (adapted to serve two):
- 2-3 pounds mussels.
- 1 large shallot, sliced thin.
- 1 1/2 cups dry white wine.
- 4 ounces butter (with one ounce held in reserve).
- Salt and Pepper.
- Parsley (finely chopped).
Heat the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the shallots. Cook the shallots until they are soft and just beginning to brown, and marvel at the amazing aroma. Add the wine and bring up to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Put the mussels into the pot and cover with a tight-fitting lid; give the pot a good shake so that they’re coated with all that buttery goodness. Steam until the mussels have opened, about 5-10 minutes. Throw in the parsley and the rest of the butter, toss to evenly distribute. Put your mussels in a serving bowl and pour on the sauce. Serve with a ton of bread, because this sauce begs to be sopped up to the last drop.
You may find that a couple of your mussels did not steam open; discard those. This is one of the simplest dishes to make, but the flavor and presentation are elegant and refined. It works perfectly as a first course, but I’m especially fond of it as a light dinner by itself. French cuisine has a reputation for being fussy and complex, but as Bourdain says in the introduction to the Les Halles Cookbook, simple recipes like this are “the most beloved, old-school, typical, and representative” dishes of true classic French cooking. The cooking time here is only about fifteen minutes, and you can’t get much better than this dish in that amount of time. Happy Cooking!