I fell madly in love with mussels in France, when cooking with a French chef, who prepared moules de bouchot (small mussels which have protected AOP status in France) – which was brought to the table in a big pot of moules à la marinière, which we all heartily dug into, extracting the warm mussels out of their broth and shells, then popping them in our mouths.
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.
I love mussels. And not just because they are invariably accompanied by French fries in France, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Related Recipes and Links
What is a Bouchot Mussel? (W&T Seafood)
Perfect French Fries (Pioneer Woman)
Homemade French Fries (Joy the Baker)
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)