Moules Frites

Moules Frites

I once had a bad experience with mussels. I won’t recount it here, but let’s just say that during the course of several days, I became intimately familiar with each and every grout line, and the nuances of each and every tile, on my bathroom floor. After that, I vowed never to eat them again. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was in Bordeaux and I was cooking with a French chef I used to work with, who prepared moules de bouchot (small mussels which have protected AOP status in France) – where everyone was diving into a big pot of moules à la marinière, that I was able put that experience behind me.

Those particular mussels are prized because they’re especially tender and, according to reports at the time, were especially delicious as well. However that was lost on me, because I refused to eat them. That is, until a steaming pot came off the stove and everyone was oohing and aahing over them. Not wanting to be part of the outré crowd, I rolled up my sleeves and reached in.

Moules Frites

And now? I love them! And not just because they are invariably accompanied by French fries, but they’re great when you’re traveling in France because you can go to the humblest of places and be assured of getting a good meal since they’re hard to screw up. In fact, even though they’re closely associated with Belgium and the north of France, one of the best meals I’ve had in France was at a ratty café near a bus station in Provence.

Most of the fellows standing around the bar were gazing with bleary eyes at the soccer match on television, and had obviously been drinking for a few hours prior to our arrival for lunch (and it was barely noon.) A quick scan of the menu made me skeptical that the food was going to be note-worthy, so we ordered the moules frites, which everyone else seemed to be ordering as well.

Moules Frites

Bingo! They were amazing, as were the fries, and now it’s one of my default dishes in France because everyone seems to do them well. But you don’t need to go out for them as they’re so easy to make at home. Moules à la marinière are mussels cooked in a simple broth of dry white wine with a base of garlic and shallots fried in butter. You can add some fresh parsley and perhaps some other herbs, dump in the mussels – and you’re good to go after about five minutes of steaming.

Variations abound, including versions with cream, saffron, cider (moules à la Normande), mussels with curry, or even with bits of Roquefort cheese melted into the sauce. But no matter how you prepare them, a glass or two of very cold white wine is pretty much de rigeur alongside.

Moules Frites

When I got a copy of Bountiful, a gorgeous cookbook from my friends Todd and Diane of White On Rice Couple, I was insanely jealous of their backyard garden, which figures prominently in the photos as well as being inspiration for the recipes in the book. (My dream is to join them for dinner and drinks in that magnificent yard, surrounded by all the fruit trees, herbs, and unusual vegetables.) I saw their recipe for mussels steamed with herbs, which they cultivate in their garden. And since it was mussel season, I picked up a big bag at the market and brought them home.

Moules Frites

Following their lead, I kept it simple, although I skipped the fresh tarragon as I don’t want anything getting in the way of the flavor of the steamy, tender mussels – except the fries. Those get a free pass, toujours.

Moules frites

Moules Frites

Four servings

Adapted from Bountiful by Todd Porter and Diane Cu

This is a great dish for entertaining as you can do pretty much everything in advance, up to where you add the wine to the pot. A few minutes before serving, simply reheat the herb-flecked wine and add the mussels. I made my French fries in my Actifry, but I’ve linked to some recipes below if you’d like to tackle deep-fried homemade French fries.

Use whatever mussels you can find to make this version of moules à la marinière. Most mussels need to be cleaned and debearded. To do so, rinse the mussels under cold water to remove dirt or other debris, using a brush if necessary. Then pull off any beards, the stringy bits dangling from between the shells. After cooking, discard any mussels that don’t open before serving.

I adjusted some of the amounts in the recipe; Todd and Diane’s version had 6 tablespoons of chopped tarragon for four servings. So you can add that if you’d like along with the parsley, or use other herbs you might find appealing (such as a handful of thyme branches) although being a native New Englander, I like seafood prepared as simply as possible. The recipe can also be halved if you’re just serving two.

The traditional way to enjoy mussels is to use the empty mussel shell from the first one you eat as pinchers to extract and remove the subsequent mussels. Serve with cold white wine, and bread with some heft to soak up the sauce.

  • 4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted or salted butter
  • 1/2 cup (55g) peeled and finely chopped shallots
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 cups (750ml) dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup (15g) chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 pounds (1,8kg) mussels, cleaned and debearded

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, garlic, and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots and garlic are soft and wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Add the wine and parsley and bring to a boil. Add the mussels to the pot, stirring them a few times, then cover and steam for about 5 minutes until the mussels open, lifting the lid midway during cooking to give them a stir.

3. Remove from heat and serve the mussels with French fries and hearty, coarse bread, to soak up the liquid.

bountiful-book

Related Recipes and Links

What is a Bouchot Mussel? (W&T Seafood)

Perfect French Fries (Pioneer Woman)

Homemade French Fries (Joy the Baker)

Mussels Steamed with Cider and Bacon (BBC)

How to clean and debeard mussels (The Kitchn)

Moules à la Marinière (Smitten Kitchen)

Moules à la Normande (On Rue Tatin)

Perfect French Fries (Leite’s Culinaria)

75 comments

  • First comment!! <3 you David

  • Funny, I just came back from Brussels yesterday, and they put quite a lot of celery in their moules marinières. the fries in belgium are also scrumptious.
    Moules are also really a good meal because mussels are so cheap in France.

    • Yes, mussels are very inexpensive in France – or at least at this moment. I bought 4 liters (qts) for €10 which easily fed four. They do have great fries in Belgium, and great beer, too! Always fun to go and get frites sold on the street in those paper cones, with a choice of a dozen or so sauces. (I always get the spiciest one.)

  • You lucky man. I once had the same experience but with a rogue oyster – and haven’t recovered since – and they used to be one of my favourite things. Have to live vicariously through other people’s enjoyment now. I suppose the good news is it only took me 3 years to get to the point where I could be in the same room with someone eating them, maybe in another 2 or 5 I could actually eat one…

  • I love eating mussels and what a great idea for serving (with fries) to company. I hope everyone doesn’t share their bad food eating experiences here in comments though — ugh — we’ve all had them but no fun to read about….just sayin’

  • I have always loved moules marinières and no visit to France has ever been complete without them. Unfortunately I recently had a very similar experience to the one that put you off them and I think it will be a long time before I brave mussels again.
    It won’t be forever though and I’m sure this recipe will come in very handy when mussels are back in my life once again…!

  • We’ll, I’ve never had a bad experience with mussels but will probably never look at them in the same way as I did before after reading your comment David and others in comments — ugh. This is one post I think I’ll pass on.

  • When I worked in seattle we did a mussels with heavy cream and cider vin.
    Do the normal garlic, shallots, oil. Add in the mussels,Cover, when opened deglaze with cider vin and add a small amount of cream. Toss and serve with garlic bread.

  • Reading that gave me sympathetic stomach pains. I had a bad clam a few years back, and I had to go to the hospital and get an IV. But the mussels look delicious!

  • Have had a couple of bad experiences with mussels but still like them

  • I had a similar 4 day nightmare after eating bad mussels at Le Meurice as did my lunch companion. Now I’m afraid to eat them again- even in France.

  • I could never understand anyone eating these “things” till on a trip to Honfluer my wife said ‘just try one”, needless to say we had to go back the next evening…..I have been enjoying them since
    There is a chain restaurant BONEFISH GRILLE adds a bit of ANISETTE…OUTSTANDING….

  • I had the best moules frites in a probably equally dodgy brasserie in Cherbourgh last year. My husband and I were starved after visiting the maritiem museum of Cherbourgh, but it was passed lunch time, and all the restaurants were closed until dinner time, except for this dodgy place. No regrets there, I still dream of them mussels. We completed this sumptious meal with equally delicious iles floutant……

    Our main venue for getting the best, the biggest, the softest mussels in the world, though, is in Nerja, southern of Spain at Montemar, a beach side restaurant at playa Burriana. Should you ever visit Southern Spain (again), make sure to try out the mussels of Montemar… They come without the frites, but who cares…..

  • The hidden surprise of moules frites are those onions… I would love to take moules marinieres-bathed onions and make a soup of them.

  • David,
    I love, LOVE moules/frites and we have a great place in St. Louis to eat them HOWEVER, I am scared to death of eating a bad one and becoming “intimately familiar” with the grout and tile in MY bathroom :0 Is there a secret or does it just happen? I know not to eat any unopened mussels, but is there another tell tale sign? Also the mussels I make at home, and yes it is incredibly easy to make great mussels at home, not so much the french fries though (quelle mess!) are frozen. Are these safe?

  • BTW–the picture of those mussels looks so delicious I could cry!!!

  • My fantasy would be to just be a fly on the wall and watch Diane and Tod work…they are absolutely amazing and your photos have taken a great leap forward…bravo!!

    Word of warning: Before cooking mussels or clams, discard any that are already open or don’t close when you touch them. You can expect a fair bit of fall out with mussels, but my rule of thumb is if there is even the slightest doubt that the shell is not tightly closed, it’s goes into the trash, not the pot.
    It’s not enough to just not eat the ones that haven’t opened!

  • David, sorry to dwell on the grout aspects on your post, but the question is begged: How does one avoid getting sick from mussels? Is it only a matter of not eating those that haven’t opened or is there something else?

    • One should buy seafood for a reputable source, that moves stock quickly. (Seafood should rarely have a strong smell – if you can smell it from a few feet away, it’s usually better to avoid it.) Health authorities advise cooking seafood and shellfish thoroughly as well.

  • I have never seen steamed mussels served with french fries. I love both so I’ll definitely try this.

  • I make my mussels simply, as you mentioned. I like to purge them. I mix spring water with sea salt which is used to duplicate sea water to be used in home salt water aquariums, and I aerate the water with a whisk then add the mussels for about a half hour. They open up and give off a great deal of dirty mucus, slime and dirt. I quickly dump out the dirty water and give them a quick wash as they close up. I have my pot of sautéed shallots and garlic and wine ready and just dump the mussels in, steam them until they open and heat up, then serve with a nice baguette. I pour a nice cold sauvignon blanc and imagine I’m in France at a small outdoor cafe’, and sitting at a table next to me is David L. or at least someone who looks just like him.

  • Hi all – glad you all seem to like moules frites. However didn’t mean to ignite stories of people having unpleasant seafood experiences. While I appreciate comments and folks sharing stories, it’s best not to dwell on that aspect here in the comments since, it is quite rare and like most foods, including beef, cheese, dairy products, vegetables, etc, proper sanitation and handling is important. Like most foods, buy from a reputable source and eat fresh or properly stored foods, whenever possible.

    Now let’s focus our attention on other aspects of this dish, like white wine…and French fries! Thanks : )

  • The mussels in the chain restaurant Carrabbas also has Pernod or anise liqueur in it. I think it’s very good, even better than those at Bonefish.

    We just returned from Paris, where we had a nostalgic meal at a chain (Leon’s) over by St. Sulpice, where we had eaten our very first visit to the city.. All sorts of different moules choices. Had to go back the next night too. The resto itself is nothing to shout about, but good moules. Fries were meh.

    • I know Leon, the chain, is almost always busy. I see big bags of mussels on the sidewalk outside, being delivered before they open. A friend went there once because they had all-you-can-eat French fries (à volonté) and when she asked for more, the waitress said she couldn’t have any (!) But I went to a place in Hyères (in the south) that had moules frites night and you didn’t even have to ask.. they just kept bringing and bringing mussels and French fries, until you told them to stop.

      • That first time we went to Leon’s, it was all-you-can eat moules. I asked for more, and they brought me out a second complete dinner, fries and all! Looked at me like I was some sort of glutton.

        That was in 2002. I didn’t see the option on the menu this time!

  • Mussels that are unopened AFTER they are cooked are perfectly fine to eat, you just need to pry them open!
    It is mussels that are OPEN when you are preparing them and wont close after tapping the shell that are the problem, these need to be discarded.
    I have been eating Mussels for 60 years using this method as a guide and have never had a problem, nor have any of the mussel collectors or mussel farmers that I know, we all use this method.
    The Dutch also cook terrific mussels, they use leeks in the sauce. In my book mussels prepared any way are great!!

  • Have the french embraced the sweet potato fry yet?

    • No, and not sure they will. The falafel chain Maoz, who has excellent falafel, offers sweet potato fries at their US locations (and perhaps others) but not at the ones in Paris. You can find sweet potatoes, but they’re not widely eaten. In fact, as you probably know, a lot of people don’t really like them. Although I cook them for French friends, oven-roasted, and they seem to like them once they get a taste of them done right.

  • Yes, you can always tell a real mussel habitué by the way they use the shell from the first mussel to eat all the other ones, and also by the way they stack them, one inside the other, in the extra bowl.

  • Like Daniel I had my first mussels in Honfleur. There was no question about their being fresh and the quay-side restaurant served buckets of them. They were the specialty.

    As for “french fries” being good in Belgium, they should be. That is where they began. Look it up. My late Mother was the best french fry cook I ever knew – at a time when few attempted them at home. She loved them. And she solved getting them to the table hot by cooking them in two stages – the first to cook the potatoes (always russet potatoes, not waxy potatoes); the second to lightly brown the fries. Marvelous. Later I found out that this IS the way french fries should be cooked. She made it up to suit herselfl

  • I had the same experience with falafel 45 years ago, bad oil, but I can’t touch them now.

  • I adore good mussels! I have been spoiled by the mussels from Carrabbas which are fantastic with garlic, lemon, butter, pernod and a touch of fresh basil. They are better than any other mussels I’ve had. I have made many attempts to top them including restaurants in San Francisco and Cassis, Nice and, Antibbes in France, but no, Carrabbas are the best! You can fid the recipe here: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/CARRABBAS-MUSSELS-COZZE-BIANCO-50119921

  • David, I had them in the UK last weekend and though I agree that they are super hard to NOT get right, the pub nearly did. In France, I have had them many times with a dollop of crème fraîche, which is lovely and a bit richer. But this pub had clearly used double cream and it was almost cloying. The mussels themselves were tasty, but the sauce was too rich for more than a dip or two of bread. A shame, as the sauce is almost my favorite part, when it’s done right!

  • What I like about mussels is that nothing can be secretly substituted. There’s no way they can switch them with something similar-like shark for scallops, or something that looks like beef but isn’t. I’ve eaten them for years and never gotten sick. French fries make the meal even better.

  • It doesn’t get much more classic than this! Mussels are so easy to cook and you can add such a variety of different flavours to them!

  • I had the best moules frites in Bruges last year. I had to carry them from the restaurant to our hotel to serve my husband, who didn’t mind the gap when changing trains. Perfect mussels, though, plump and tender. Wanted to relive that so we had moules frites in Reims. Tough, overcooked, disappointing. Oh, well. Now I need to make my own. Thanks for the recipe.

  • I’m a huge fan of mussels. Such a simple satisfying food. They are sweet and acidic at the same time.
    The Bountiful book looks amazing!

  • Yumm!! Growing up on Long Island, we ate what felt like infinite mussels during the late summer/early fall, but there “mussels marinara” came in a fresh tomato sauce with a side of spaghetti, as most things do in the Italian American enclaves on LI. Not until I was a bit older did I fall in love with the French versions, served with fried. Magnifique!

  • I once had a similar experience with mussels and was wary of them for a long time- too long, since they’ve always been a favorite of mine! I like them cooked down in coconut milk with chile peppers- so, so good, since their brininess works really well against coconut. the fact that I’m a little French fry obsessed helps with the ordering at restaurants, too. Nothing like dipping fries in the bottom of the dish after you’ve eaten all the mussels!

  • Do you like your Actifry?

    • I do like it. I wrote about it when I got it and have been using it for a number of years. (I just saw in a local store they have come out with a smaller version.) The downside is that it takes up quite a bit of space in the kitchen and in the US, they’re expensive because they are Made in France and imported. (As opposed to Made in China.) But I think the fries are very good – I use duck fat with them!

  • love your blog…..coming for 6 days this weekend…..could you please tell us what 10 things foodwise you would do in paris, only spending smallish amounts of money….i think you once wrote such a list, but cant find it….other fans would appreciate too

  • David, I’m trying to understand how you can eat mussels in a ‘ratty cafe’ when you know first hand that eating mussels you haven’t prepared yourself is a culinary version of Russian roulette?

    Swans Oyster Depot, the best spot in San Francisco for fresh seafood, served me an oyster from the Pacific Northwest a few years ago that still causes me to think twice before eating one again.

    Usually by the time one figures out there’s a bad mussel in the pot, it’s too late. Best to enjoy mussels cooked at home so you know every mussel in the pot was firmly closed when you washed it.

    • @Carolyn Schultz, and don’t cross the street either, ’cause you might get hit by a car! As David said, all the locals at the bar were eating them.

  • OK, now tell us how to make wonderful french fries.

  • Oh yes, I’ve had a similar experience twice with steamed clams, and now rather shamefully I only eat canned ones…

  • I certainly appreciate a good bowl of moules, and of course a cold white wine. But it seems like a pale Belgian beer (like Affligem blonde) would be the perfect liquid accompaniment to moules frites, no?

    • I like beer a lot of mussels (and other seafood) but I tend to only drink beer if I’m at the beach in the sun, or in Mexico. (Or in Belgium.) And rarely drink it at home. But it is a good choice with moules frites – although I’d rather be enjoying them on the beach, with white wine or beer.

  • Fantastic post that left me hungry for mussels. I love all variations and have yet to have a version that wasn’t absolutely delicious… My least favorite are the varieties with cream added, my most favorite those with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and white wine. So fantastic, and an excellent excuse (for those who need one) to eat an entire baguette in one sitting! ;-)

  • Hi David! I have recently discovered your website, I am enjoying reading it very much, it has great info! I hope we can begin to exchange some ideas! Thank you.

  • Mussels aren’t only delicious but I’m always surprised at how inexpensive they are at the markets (in both Canada and the U.S.). Makes it really hard for me to order mussels when I go out to eat.

  • I first had mussels in Louven, Belgium. I was in heaven. Ever since then I’ve sought them out and NOW know how to prepare them with my own frites. Thanks for this recipe, and giving me another way to prepare my favorite delicacy.

  • Wow! What a colors! I’ve never seen cooked mussels with color like that. Just amazing.

  • Have you ever noticed, that as mollusks, mussels are actually close relatives of squids? :D hahahaha :D

  • For an authentic Belgian flavor (and northern france too), I advise putting a lot of chopped celery, leaves and starks :). I also love any kind of mussels sauce but this one (with celery, onions, a few dices of carrots, parsley, garlic and white wine) is the most authentic one for my region.

    the difference is also in the quantities : in the north of france, you’re given a small cooking pot of mussels (25x25x25cm), and in a lot of other regions, only a plate (!). Shells out, that leaves maybe 15 mussels to eat :/… I once gave back my plate of mussels saying “I’m sorry but I ordered mussels, NOT a dozen of oysters, you may have been mistaken Ö”.

    Some regions give a good batch of great fries, cut with a knife, but most of them give a good batch of… pale industrial fries, which is a shame. I prefer a small bowl of great fries instead of a big pile of bad ones, especially with mussels.

    About sweet potatoes fries you talked about in the comments, I think they are slowly getting at our french tables, and the first ones to try are probably those who planted them in their gardens for the beautiful flowers.
    My uncle works in some city gardens of Nice, and there’s some sweet potatoes planted there, in the borders, for their flowers.

    He told me that every year, they put them out to replace them, and share the enormous potatoes between the employees to eat them at home :D. their families love them and I heard some more stories like that. Maybe the info about how good they are when they are fried will pass along in france during the next years :D.

  • Dear David,

    Just wondering what time will you be at the “bookfest” on October 27? We have another engagement but would love to stop by to meet you! Missed you last year, hope to have a chance to meet you this year.

    bao-kim

  • Hi Bao-Kim: I plan to be there until 3:30pm. The event is a popup food festival and jumble sale and I was told it starts at 1pm, although I was also told that some people may be allowed to enter at noon. For more general information about the event, you can check the link on my Schedule page. Thanks!

  • Hi David,

    Thank you, we cant wait to meet you!

    bao-kim

  • I really like your blog, but honestly was the grout citing story really necessary? Now neither you (and I) will ever look at mussels again in the same way. I may be old fashioned, but I think there are some things you don’t discuss at the table while people are eating and the same should be said about a food blog. HOWEVER it is your blog of course — I am just commenting….

  • Oh for Pete’s sake. This is real life.

  • If you happen to find moules de Barfleur when you’re in France, don’t think twice!
    They are wild mussels and are much tastier than moules de bouchot. As other readers mentioned, unopened mussels are good to eat, it’s just that they haven’t cooked enough. Another great post, thank you David.

  • I’m a gastroenterologist and your comment about knowing all the tiles and grout is just common dinner table conversation at our home. To your sensitive readers I say, “Get over it”.

  • In Perth, Australia we do Italian Chilli Mussels (warning: not actually Italian) with a chilli tomato broth base and parmeasan. I haven’t seen them elsewhere so you should try them next time you’re in town. I’ve never been swayed to try the wine kind but maybe I should…

    • Schtef, can you give a brief description of how those are made? We’re going to spend a couple weeks in Darwin with son and d-i-l and would love to make these for them.

  • Oh man, at the Braderie in Lille one year, the very last moule I ate tasted funky. On the Eurostar going home later that day I thought I was going to die. It took a long time for me to eat them again and I still have to work up the courage.

  • A few years ago we were travelling through France and we stopped off at a town on the coast. Can’t remember the name of the town but the mussels I had there were amazing. With bacon and tomato. Much as I love the wine (and definitely cider) and cream combinations, the smoked lardons of bacon and tomato version was ever so yummy.
    I’ve made the dish at home several times since then, my version of surf and turf.

  • A few years ago in Venice if had a great meal of mussels which ended up in the Grand Canal!! Have never touched them again. After reading your blog I think I might be tempted to give our Tasmanian mussels a try.

  • Since it’s Thanksgiving, I’m always looking for blogs that will give me plenty of ideas. My friend just told me about “Cooking With Mr. C.” on Facebook (also a blog). I just “Liked” his page. He dedicates November for all Thanksgiving ideas. I was hoping I may find some things on your blog this season too. Alana

  • The best moules et frites I’ve ever had was at a restaurant in Brussels. Cooked in white wine and served with the best crispy fries and housemade mayonnaise. I also distinctly remember there was a rather large man eating alone at the table across from me, wearing suspenders and a napkin tucked under his chin. He not only ordered a giant serving of moules et frites, but also a pint of beer and a slice of cake – and polished them all off!

  • @katina. Good for. Him. After hearing all you’ve been saying I suppose I won’t try them. Just the thought would. I’d take his chipsfries whatever in a heart beat.

  • We had the moules de bouchot just once, in a Léon out toward Cergy. We tried them on a lark (for only a euro more each, why not), and four years later (having since left France) we still talk about that one magical meal in a crappy suburban Léon.
    Incidentally, we never had an issue getting a refill of frites.

  • About 35 years ago, my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant in Brussels called Le Roi des Moules. All they served was mussels, frites and dessert. All the various steamed mussels were served in individual copper kettles and brought to the table. The waiter was professional and extremely kind. For dessert they had souffléd Grand Marnier crepes. Heaven.

  • There are mussels and there are mussels. Most of the ones available to us here, in Toronto supermarkets and even Costco, are from PEI, on the Atlantic coast. They are consistently excellent. I’ve also enjoyed oustanding gigantic ones from B.C., only available occasionally, in specialty fish markets. However, like you, David, I once ordered those tiny ones at a little bistro on an idyllic trip to the Loire Valley and they were, by far, the most delectable mussels I’ve ever eaten. They told me they hailed from Mont St. Michel and were rarely available. For moi, a once in a lifetime experience!