Sunday, December 14, 2008



Before we were married, my soon-to-be husband took me and my sister on a road trip, from Paris to Dieppe, to walk on on the beach and then eat Moules Frites in a traditional little sea-side bistro. Ah, those were the days of our care-free youth and simple pleasures, when I was new to this country and JP loved to introduce me to his France. He loves the sea, rambling in the surf with his dog, a “flash of happiness in an often desolate world” as he so astutely put it.

So when I looked out the window yesterday upon a gloomy winter’s day, rain and grey skies and fog and I asked him what I could make for him that would cheer him up, brighten the day, what his ultimate comfort food was, he immediately and without hesitation answered, “Moules Frites” - Mussels à la Dieppoise and French Fries.

For someone whose every idea of comfort food is enveloped in sweetness, I balked when he told me that he wanted Moules Frites. But what a perfect plan for Sunday - a trip to the market and cuisine à deux : a cooking adventure together.

Happy was my morning when I looked back out the window and saw that the sad rainy Saturday had been replaced by a brilliant, sunny Sunday! Lucky for me, or JP would never agree to walk to the market. So, basket in gloved hand, off we went.

The joy of cooking mussels is multifold : it is inexpensive, quick and easy, it is a food rich inprotein, iodine, iron, copper and selenium as well as a good source of calcium. And it is so impressive on the table. There are so many versions of this dish that it can adapt to your taste and your pantry; once you master the technique of steaming mussels, you can vary it to no end, in cream sauce, with lemon or curry, with chopped fresh tomatoes or simply, as we have done today. The slender, shiny, blue-black gems opening up to offer their delicate orange or cream-colored meat, scooping up a bit of sauce in the shell before slurping it all up, wiping off your chin and washing it down with a good Muscadet.

Moules Frites is a tradition all over Belgium and parts of France, from Lille to Dieppe, typically Northern seaside towns. Mussels and fried potatoes “fait bon ménage” as they say here, a true match made in heaven.


Steamed Mussels with French Fries for 2 good eaters

5 lbs (2 kg) mussels
1 bottle of good, light white wine, like a Muscadet *
Butter and olive oil
Shallots - 2 large or 4 small, more or less
Cloves garlic - 2 or 3
Flat-leaf parsley
Old Bay Seasoning or any good fish/seafood seasoning or rub
Dash of light cream, optional
French Fries, homemade or not **

* Rule of Thumb : the wine that you cook with should be the wine that you serve with the meal, so don’t try and buy a cheap wine in order to cut cooking costs. Buy something delicious and good quality. We buy a local Muscadet or white from the Domaine of Joe Landron, usually an organic Amphibolite or Clos la Carizière.

**We like to concentrate on the Moules, so we go with good quality, store-bought, frozen, oven-baked French Fries.

Prepare the mussels :

Dump the bag of mussels into your sink and pick them over, removing and discarding any open mussels or mussels with a crushed shell. The RULE OF THUMB to remember is : before cooking, get rid of open mussels, after cooking, discard any mussels that have remained closed.

Now remove the beard. This is the fuzzy kind of hairy thing hanging out of the closed shell. Grab this and, pulling it out and down, yank it sharply to pull it out of the mussel. While you are at it, wipe off any questionable, loose barnacles that may be sticking to the shells. This looks quite daunting, but just roll up your sleeves and dive in. For the truly faint of heart, though, I guess that you could wear a pair of rubber gloves. Although, I must say, that when I have an insatiable craving for Moules Frites and JP says that he will cook them if I clean them, then really, do I have a choice? Transfer the debearded mussels to a large collander.

When this process is complete, run the mussels quickly under cold running water, tossing, to wash off any sand and impurities.

Prepare the Marinière :

Mince the garlic and shallots, less if you just want a hint of flavor in the sauce, more if you like finding bits of sautéed shallot in every mouthful. Chop a large handful of parsley finely, preferably in a glass using scissors. Measure out a wine glass full of the white wine.

Now that everything is ready to go, preheat your oven and start the French Fries. Take a break and taste the wine to make sure that it is the perfect choice to serve with your Moules Frites. And what goes better with a glass of white than a slice of fresh-baked bread spread with cool butter, preferably salted, with a slice or two of good Italian salami.

In a very large pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of butter and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the minced shallots and garlic and sweat for a minute or two over medium-high heat until transparent.

Add the finely chopped parsley, a couple of good dashes of seafood seasoning and dump in the collander of mussels (the liquor in the shells will add more steaming liquid to the pot). Salt and pepper generously, pour the glass of wine over it all, toss and cover the pot tightly.

Steam, tightly covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, lifting off the lid just to toss the mussels for even steaming occasionally. The mussels will gently and gradually open, and once opened let them steam another few minutes so the meat is tender.

Add a few tablespoons or so of the cream if you wish, toss everything until well blended and let heat through.

Place a large ladleful or 2 or 3 of mussels in a soup plate with some sauce for each person. Serve immediately with the French Fries, the rest of the bottle of wine, fresh bread and butter. And make sure that there is a large empty bowl in the middle of the table for the empty shells. And plenty of napkins.

A note on eating mussels. There are two ways to eat steamed mussels; one is to slurp directly from the shell after having scooped up a bit of the sauce. The other is to use one empty shell as a “pincher” to pinch and pull the mussel meat out of the other shells, like a primitive eating utensil.


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