Moules Marinières

April 11, 2009

Mussels, a personal love, have been a food source for tens of thousands of years. They encapsulate the type of food that I adore: simple, savory, and without pretense.

In ancient Greece, electoral votes were cast by scratching the names of candidates inside mussel shells.

Centuries later, in one of the earliest (14th century) French cookbook transcripts, Le Viander de Taillevent, a mussel recipe appears—with mint of all things. The reknowned Taillevent rose from meager beginnings as a young kitchen hand by the common name of Guillaume Tirel to become the heralded master chef for the king of France, Charles V (“the Wise”). More than a quincentennial later, Taillevent’s name graced a famous Parisian restaurant which opened shortly after the close of World War II.

Mussels are bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live on exposed shores in intertidal zones. The external shell is composed of two hinged halves (valves) joined together by a ligament, and closed by robust internal muscles. They have tough, elastic byssal threads—their notorius “beards.”

On storage: do not bring home mussels in a closed plastic bag and directly store them in the refrigerator. In that sealed bag, they will suffocate and die. So, either put them on the refrigerator shelf with the bag open or transfer them to a large glass bowl and cover them with a damp cotton cloth.


2 lbs fresh mussels

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 t sea salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3 shallots, peeled and finely minced
2 t dried thyme
2 C white wine (slightly sweet or a touch fruity)

1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C fresh tarragon, chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

Start with butter then combine salt, garlic, shallots, thyme, and wine in large deep heavy skillet. Sweat over low heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and mussels with a generous sprinkling of pepper, then cover. Cook just until shells open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and sprinkle with tarragon and more pepper.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette slices and a chilled white or rosé.


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