[An excerpt from my latest column for Offerings, on our trip to Provence and eating mussels with Alain Pascal, and making them, again, at home...]
The French have mastered what has taken me years to accept: the most wonderful food has actually been manipulated very little. (Think steamed snow crab, or a radish tartine). The ingredients are already the best they’re ever going to be, and all a smart chef does is nudge it into its final stages of bliss.
An example: My first night in Provence, I attended a dinner at the home of a winemaker living in the Bandol region. As the night went on, we were plied with more and more Mediterranean treasures: cool glasses of copper-colored rosé, half-stale baguettes smeared with almond-mint pesto and tapenade, slow-roasted tomatoes infused with parsley and garlic, grilled fluke drowning in local olive oil. It was extremely simple — country food, the winemaker would have insisted — but executed with the kind of passion and elegance I have only found in people truly in love with eating.
That evening, I ate my first Provencal mussel, plucked from a wide, shallow iron pan which rested directly on an outdoor fire. They were the most complex, rich-tasting mussels I’ve ever had, but the ingredient list was surprisingly short: the freshly-harvested bivalves, scrubbed clean, a thick paste of garlic, a generous amount of olive oil, and a few branches of rosemary. As the mussels heated over the fire, they released their briny liquid within, flooding the pan with greyish ocean water. We lifted mussels out of the pan with our fingers, pinching out the orange flesh, and tossing the black shell onto the glowing embers of the fire as if it were our personal trash can.
Of course, you don’t need to have an outdoor fireplace to revel in a properly cooked, plump mussel. Unlike most seafood, mussels are crazy cheap and extremely plentiful when in season, so you can serve gigantic amounts of them for an impressive effect. They’re also one of the most environmentally sound types of fish or shellfish around, and they’re super easy to cook. So yeah, this cheap bivalve is pretty amazing.
French cooks like to layer mussels into tarts, bake them into omelets, or cream them into soups. But when I’m cooking for a big group of friends, the easiest way to get maximum impact is to steam mussels gently into submission, and serve them alongside a no-frills starch, like garlic bread, roasted potato wedges, or pasta (either go tiny, like orzo or fregola, or go long and skinny, like spaghetti). Piled high into individual bowls, steamed mussels are spectacular main course, and cost a fraction of its pricier ocean pals.
[Recipe notes: As with most shellfish, mussels must be alive up until the moment of cooking; they become quite unpalatable once dead. Always cook them the same day you buy them. When going through the shells, discard any that are not shut tightly. And after cooking mussels, be sure to toss any mussels which haven’t opened completely during the steaming process.]
Provençal Steamed Mussels
5 pounds of mussels
2-3 tablespoons good olive oil
2-3 tablespoons salted butter
10-12 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 shallots, minced finely
3-4 branches rosemary, left intact
½ cup rosé wine (only buy something as good as you would drink in a glass)
¼ cup mixed fresh herbs (use a combination of basil, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, chives, or whatever is in season)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Lemon wedges, to serve
1-2 tablespoons Pastis, optional
—Rinse and thoroughly scrub mussels in three changes of water to remove “the beard,” barnacles, and all sand and grit. Set aside.
—In a a deep, stainless steel pot, heat olive oil and butter over medium-low heat. Once shimmering, add shallots and garlic, and turn the heat down to low. Stir until lightly golden, about five minutes. (If using Pastis, add to the aromatics and cook until reduced, about 30 seconds.)
—Add the mussels (depending on the size of your pot, you may have to do this in two batches). Add rosemary branches, a few hefty glugs of wine, and shake pot vigorously.
—Place lid tightly on pot and let mussels steam. As soon as they have opened (about five minutes), they are finished cooking.
—Finish with a few pinches of salt, a grind of pepper, and a dramatic toss of fresh herbs.
—Ladle mussels and its attendant liquid into shallow bowls. Serve immediately with crusty, fresh bread and lemon wedges.