Here’s recipe number 6 on my countdown to the Feast of the Seven Fishes: Moules à la Normande – mussels in the style of the Normandy region of France. Normandy is well-known for seafood, hard cider, and cheese. Sounds like a plan!
This version came from a fellow who used to live nearby. He was crustier than a stale baguette. We nicknamed him Barnacle Bob. Once a young Italian in New York’s garment business, he endeared himself to his future wife, a British fashion model in the 1960s, by defending her against the advances of a chauvinistic boss. Or was it his classy wool trousers, which never wore out and looked good even on his crooked octagenarian frame? Whenever we got together for a meal he made something with seafood. He did live up to his moniker, even if he couldn’t sail a ship.
This recipe falls into a larger group of expedient steamed mussel recipes often called moules marinière – loosely, “mussels, fisherman style.” Moules marinière typically calls for white wine, but broth, beer or cider are also used. The basic recipe involves heating chopped aromatics and herbs with a lightly acidic liquid, tossing in the mussels and steaming until done. Typically the resulting broth is poured over the mussels, with or without cream added.
When served in northern France, Belgium, or the Netherlands, the classic side dish is French fries, or pommes frites, as they are called. As for the name French fries, I don’t know. The Belgians invented them. Then again, the Dutch invented the Belgian waffle. If you haven’t any fresh, twice fried frites you can serve crusty French bread alongside.
Moules Savior Faire
Before we get to the recipe, there is a lot to know about mussels. The mussels I prefer are the rope-grown blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) from aquatic farms in the bays of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Mussels grown in this manner are sustainable, do not require additives to the water, and are almost entirely free of silt, since they are grown above the sea floor. The water around PEI is of excellent quality and it is said the blue mussel is the sweetest of all mussels. The New Zealand green lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus) is larger and plumper, but I find them not as delicate and usually frozen.
Beyond their aquaculture peculiarities, mussels have a tradition of special cookware and unusual eating methods. In Belgium I was amazed at the portion of mussels, typically about a kilogram. Curious, I counted the shells one time. Six dozen! Mussels are generally steamed in an enameled pot with a dish-shaped lid that fits tightly on top. The pot holds a kilo of mussels in the bottom while steaming and the lid holds the entire jetsam of shells.
Eating the mussels can be messy. The traditional way is to use an empty shell like a pair of tweezers, picking out the mussel meat from another shell while holding each with your fingers. You can try using a fork, but you’ll eventually drop a shell into the broth or fling one accidentally at your dinner companion. There’s a fun little hotel and restaurant called The Old Tom on the main plaza in Ieper, Belgium. There they promote a special fork for mussels.
Moules à la Normande
Ingredients for 2 Servings
- 2 pounds fresh mussels
- 1/4 cup celery, diced
- 2 tbsp red bell pepper, diced
- 4 teas minced shallot (1/2 small bulb)
- 1 teas minced garlic (2 cloves)
- 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 cup finest hard cider or apple wine
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled
- white pepper to taste
Remember: when mussels are raw they should be closed; discard any that aren’t. When cooked they should pop open; discard any that don’t. Begin by placing the mussels in a bowl of cold, unchlorinated water. Next, chop the vegetables as described. Melt the butter in a large enamel pot, add the celery for a minute, then the bell pepper, shallot, garlic, and parsley, stirring to lightly soften, about another minute. Add the cider and place the lid on. As soon as the cider boils, quickly add the mussels (discarding the soaking water). Place the lid on tightly and steam for about 4 minutes.
Arrange the mussels on two deep rimmed plates and keep warm. Immediately add the cream to the liquid in the pot and apply high heat until boiling. Stir in the cheese and bit of white pepper, then using a large spoon, generously divide the sauce over the two plates. Serve immediately with fries or crusty bread and more hard cider. And don’t let the amazing broth go to waste!
- No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
- No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
- No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cocktail I’ll list in my Classic Cocktails category: the Pisco Sour.
That’s it for now – stay tuned. TPJ