Mussels for Mum

Moms love French food. Soufflés make her sparkle. Provençal sounds like a good name for a kid to her. Bistros are her preferred bar. The allure of this country’s culinary je ne sais quois can might coincide with a vast generation clued in to its mysteries and virtues by a tall, warbly-voiced, and ever so ladylike American named Julia Child. Then again, my dad knows much more about The Way to Cook than my own mom, who’s never dabbled in French cooking herself. Hopefully that makes it all the more enchanting to be served a plate of classic white wine steamed mussels for Mother’s Day.

Mussels were always a must-order appetizer at restaurants for my mom, who actually deigns to eat the bread only when it’s soaked in the herby broth at the bottom of the dish. They’re a joy of simplicity to cook. The only thing painful about making mussels yourself — and it’s important — might be finding good, fresh ones. Not-so-fresh seafood completely ruins the fun. On Sunday, I had planned on buying some from one of a few places which I could count on to be good and fresh. But since I couldn’t imagine how I would keep them cold on the subway and train ride, I called in yesterday morning to a local fish market in my parents’ town, and asked if they had mussels that day; they said they did. Solved, I thought. (And this is when I became really fixated on making a particular dish.) When I arrived in New Jersey, I was informed instead that the fish market never had mussels yesterday at all. They had lied. After several trips to supermarkets and fish markets, we landed a bag of mussels that, in the end, didn’t taste the freshest.

I don’t wish this experience upon anyone. From now on, I’m going to ask the fish retailer, point blank, which items are freshest, or what day they received which. If practiced correctly, this should be a pretty good vice against bad seafood. We’ll see. Those who’ve read Anthony Bourdain‘s Kitchen Confidential may recall an anecdote about how nobody ever picks through the mussels to remove the ones that are open before cooking them in restaurant kitchens. This Upton Sinclair-esque revelation, at least, propels my faith in the power of the critical home chef.

There are many of ways to cook steamed mussels in a classic white wine, French Provençal style. I prefer a little chopped tomatoes in mine, and lots of leeks or shallots. That’s really all I need. Most of the time you’ll find a little splash of cream in recipes, a dash of Pernod, a good sprinkle of parsley. You’ll be surprised at how little flavor goes a long way when steaming mussels.

afraid that I didn’t have enough mussels on hand, I went and got some littleneck clams, too. This turned out to be unecessary, but not untasty. (note: these needed to be put into the steamer a few minutes before the mussels, as they take longer to open.)

White Wine Steamed Mussels with Leeks, Tomato & Saffron
(makes about 4 appetizer-size servings)

About 3 lb mussels
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup finely chopped leeks (white parts mostly)
1 cup ripe tomatoes, chopped
Sprinkle of chives (or parsley)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tb butter or olive oil
Pinch of saffron, crushed (optional)

Wash, scrub and debeard mussels, if not already done. Discard any opened ones. Do not soak, but keep cold in a colander with ice cubes, or refrigerate while preparing the rest of the ingredients. Sweat the leeks in butter or oil in a large pot with a lid for about 3 minutes. Add saffron, if using. Add the mussels all at once, tomatoes, wine, and cover. Cook covered approximately 5 minutes, and peek in to check if all the mussels have opened. Cover and let cook a couple minutes longer if unsure.

When all the mussels are opened, remove with a slotted spoon and place into a serving bowl. Season the cooking liquid with a little salt and pepper and let cook, reducing to almost half. Sprinkle herbs on top and serve immediately, with bread on the side for dipping.

saffron is also key spice for the French seafood stew, bouillabaisse

Cost Calculator (how does this work?)
(for 4 appetizer-size servings)

3 lb mussels (varies greatly, but at $3.99/lb): $12.00
1 cup chopped leeks (at $2.49/lb): $1.00
2 plum tomatoes (at $1.99/lb): $1.20
2 cups white wine (?/bottle): about $2.00
5-6 crushed strands saffron (about 1/18 jar for $20): $1.11
Salt, pepper, 1 Tb olive oil: $0.20

Total: $17.51

Health Calculator

Four brownie points: Unlike seafood like shrimp and lobster, mussels have relatively low cholesterol, and are lower in fat and sodium than its shellfish cousins. According to this site, it also has the highest level of omega-3 fatty acids than any other shellfish. Deleting cream or butter from this recipe greatly reduces the fat while reducing the liquid still results in a flavorful broth. Just something to keep in mind while sopping away on those wine-soaked veggies at the bottom.

5 Responses

  1. Deborah Dowd

    The result looks beautiful, I’m sure your mom was delighted (I know I would be!) Also, I love your cost calculator, it is great for beginning cooks and those struggling to stay within a food budget!

  2. Yvo

    Yummy! I’m so keen on trying this dish (in restaurants or making it myself) but I don’t believe I like mussels (am willing to give them another chance soon though…). I see it/smell it at restaurants sometimes and just really want to try it… haha. Your version looks delish.

    Question… how much is saffron around, anyway? And what type is one supposed to buy? When we were in Turkey, I was sorely tempted (and not sure if it’s legal to bring that back actually) to buy some in their spice bazaar, but there were a few different kinds and such varying prices, I was terrified of being completely ripped off and/or being made to dump it at the airport. (I would have cried if I spent $30 on a bit of spices and found out they were only worth, say, $10.)

  3. cathy

    Hi Yvo (I can’t figure out why everyone’s in bold right now and gave up): good question… somebody did finagle me a little jar of saffron from Eastern Europe a few years ago, so I don’t really know how much it cost there. Just did some research online and see it costs somewhere around $36US an ounce, and an ounce sounds like quite a bit since the spice is so lightweight. Sorry I’m not much help here!

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