The idea of cooking mussels at home used to intimidate me—those living things opening and closing their shells and making me wonder whether they are “good” or if they will make me very ill, if I should ignore the fact that a mussel is not quite open but not fully closed, or if there wasn’t really a crack but a hairline fracture before cooking, or if I couldn’t get that “beard” quite ripped off from the shell, or if...
You get the idea. I was nervous about cooking mussels at home. I assumed that restaurant chefs are so much more magically attuned to whether or not they had a bad mussel in the group, so I happily paid a lot of money for mussels eating out instead. Besides, some of that expensive price tag went towards fries (or “frites”), so I felt justified. Then I saw—ok, yes, at Costco—that mussels were $1.99 a pound. Hmmmm. That 5-pound bag that cost $10 contained 3-4 times more mussels than I ever got at a restaurant for $20! I had to re-evaluate my anxiety about cooking mussels.
I consulted Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home by Ina Garten. Indeed, her recipe seemed pretty straightforward. She labels her mussels “Moules Marinières” instead of “Provençale.” My understanding is that mussels in white wine are generally “Marinières” and that the addition of tomato—along with the requisite herbs and garlic—brings it to the region of “Provençales,” but I never got that cleared up. In any case, the recipe looked super-easy. Here’s a link to the Food Network recipe for Ina Garten’s mussels, essentially halved from her cookbook: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/mussels-in-white-wine-recipe/index.html. Note: Ina Garten uses more salt (and, for that matter, more sugar) in her recipes than I need, so I usually start with half of the amount she calls for.
First, I followed Ina Garten’s recommendation for cleaning the mussels by soaking them in water and flour for 30 minutes—to “disgorge” sand—but I’m not sure most mussels need them these days. Those in the bag I got were pretty clean to begin with, so there wasn’t a lot of disgorging during the soaking process. Nor were there many mussels with beards. Because most were quite clean, I barely needed to do any scrubbing. If you want to cut down the cleaning process, I would just suggest getting mussels that announce they are ready for cooking.
The next steps call for heating butter and olive oil, adding shallots (and/or onions if you don’t have enough shallots), then garlic. You add saffron threads soaked in water—which is a nice touch and adds more flavor than you’d expect—along with chopped tomatoes, herbs (parsley and thyme), white wine, salt (remember to reduce from the Barefoot recipe) and pepper. Once the liquid comes to a boil, all you need to do is add the mussels and let them steam open under a closed pot. It helps if you have a glass lid like I have so that you can see mussels opening up. After 8 to 10 minutes, you have restaurant-worthy mussels.
Perhaps it’s just us, but I thought these mussels cooked at home were actually more tender, more juicy and flavorful, than those we paid a lot of money for at a restaurant. The only possible downside was that we had way more mussels than the two of us could consume. So we saved the rest—and their juices—and made mussel bisque later in the week. Win-win.