Mussels. They’re inexpensive, easy to cook, kind of celebratory, widely available in the neighborhood and delicious. Yet many never think of making them at home. Why not?
Here’s one of my favorite recipes, given to me by an American ex-pat in Amsterdam years ago. It’s a “can’t miss:” mussels cooked in wine with sautéed leeks, finished with a drizzle of heavy cream. The cooking liquid is served in a bowl with the shellfish, to be sopped up with bread. (I recommend a baguette from Pain d’Avignon in the Essex Street Market). Elegant simplicity. Round things out with a generous salad and you have a quick one pot meal you could easily serve to guests. Best of all: even an inefficient cook could put this together in under half an hour.
- Mussels (they come de-bearded, so just give them a quick scrub)
- White wine
- Heavy cream
I already covered neighborhood seafood sources in a previous article. Be sure to buy the mussels as close to cooking time as possible, as they’re best kept on ice. Here’s the rule with them: discard any that are open, as well as any that fail to open after cooking. Figure on about ¾ pound per person as a main course, less as a starter.
Leeks can be found at Essex Farm (the northernmost greengrocer in the Essex Street Market) or at our local supermarkets. The white parts can be sliced like scallions, but the green parts need a thorough rinsing to get any dirt out (peel off outer layers until you don‘t see any dirt underneath). I discard the dark green tops. Figure one leek for every 2-3 people. Any dry white wine will do for this. I lean toward a Sauvignon Blanc, but have had success with Pino Grigio, Vinho Verde and even jug wine once on vacation in Maine.
The method is easy, and there‘s no need to measure anything. Heat some butter (a tablespoon or two) in the bottom of a pot. Add leeks. When they start to brown a little add scrubbed mussels and enough white wine to cover them about halfway. (The ones on top can steam). Cover and let simmer for about ten minutes. Discard any that fail to open. No need to add salt, as the liquid from the mussels is enough to salt the entire dish.
Plate the mussels in large soup bowls. Drizzle some cream into liquid left in the pot. (A little goes a long way, so figure a couple tablespoons, max). Ladle broth over mussels and serve. Place an empty bowl on the table for the shells.
Almost all mussels for sale are cultivated, and their cultivation is generally considered an environmentally friendly, sustainable thing (unlike farming certain kinds of fish). In summer and fall the mussels available are the large Mediterranean type. In winter and spring the smaller, more intensely flavored blue mussels dominate the markets.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
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The white wine that turned me around on whites (after years of being a “red wine guy“) was a Sancerre. These French expressions of the Sauvignon Blanc grape are dry, crisp and complex, with citrus fruit and sometimes even a hint of smoke. Unfortunately good examples are often expensive, so I rarely drink Sancerre. But less expensive wines of similar style and terrior can be found, and Henri Bourgeios’ Petit Bourgeois 2010 ($14), at Seward Park Liquors, is a great example. It’s crisp, with refreshing acidity balancing citrus fruit. Not a hint of sugar on the finish. It’s a more elegant choice than many of the almost cloying, higher-alcohol takes on this grape from California and New Zealand. Crisp is good. Elegant is good. And this “poor man’s Sancerre” is very good for the price.