There are as many recipes for this classic preparation of mussels as there are crotchety fishermen on the Normandy coast. Some people use butter, some use olive oil, some add bay leaves and fresh thyme. On a few things, however, everyone is agreed: the recipe must involve white wine, onion or shallots, parsley, and just a touch of cream. This is the kind of food where if you trust your instincts and use mussels that are as fresh as possible you really can’t go wrong. We found delicate tiny mussels no more than four or five centimeters long, so I took a minimalist approach, and omitted strong flavours to let the mussels shine through.
Mussels are cheap as chips, incredibly easy to prepare, and extremely versatile. The thing about mussels is not to overcook them: if you cook them to death they become tough and mealy. Use a pot with a well-fitting lid, resist the temptation to ‘check’ on your mussels too soon, and steam until most of the mussels have opened completely, and no longer. Depending on the size of your mussels (there is a pun here, which I’m resisting) and the quantity you’re preparing, this should take no longer than five to seven minutes at the absolute maximum. Finally, another thing to be aware of about mussels is that they don’t like plastic bags and will die if stored in plastic. Fishmongers generally know this, but occasionally you will be sold mussels in plastic. As soon as you get home, take them out of the bag, rinse them off under your cold water tap, put them in a bowl, and keep them in your fridge uncovered.
One kilo of mussels
One shallot, finely chopped
Two large or three small cloves of garlic, minced
A handful (about three tablespoons) of flat leaf parsley, leaves picked from stems and minced
3 tablespoons, or about 75 grams, unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine suitable for cooking (I used Muscadet)
3 tablespoons single cream
Under cold running water, scrub and debeard the mussels (i.e., pull off the little bits of seaweed and rock that may have clung to the mussels), discarding any mussels that are open or broken.
Using a stockpot with a well-fitting lid that is big enough to hold all the mussels with some room to spare, heat the butter or olive oil, then sauté the shallots and garlic over medium-low heat until the shallots are soft and transparent but not brown, about five to seven minutes. Stir in the wine and cook for an additional three minutes or so, so that some of the alcohol evaporates. Increase heat to high, add the mussels, and cover the pot. Cook for three to five minutes, shaking the pot occasionally. At this point you can add the cream. The best way to incorporate the cream and avoid lumps is to put the cream in a bowl and stir in some the liquid from the pot to thin the cream before adding it to the pot. Stir in the cream mixture, throw in the parsley, and continue to cook for (no more than) another couple of minutes, or until the mussels have opened wide.
Serve immediately, accompanied by crusty bread and a nice salad.
Serves 4, as a light main or lunch.