I love mussels. Adore them. Happily order them any time I find them on a menu. And I’ve been thinking about posting a recipe for them on here for months. Months! So it’s very sad that I’m only just getting around to it.
Here is the reason for the holdup: at my grocery story, when mussels are available, they are only available in four pound parcels. And mussels are one of those dishes where you really need to cook and eat them within about 24 hours of buying them — they do not make good leftovers, as they toughen significantly after being cooked. And, although I probably could eat all four pounds myself, I think that would probably detract from my love of mussels in the future.
But, of course, the farmer’s market saved me once again. I arrived somewhat late on Saturday, and most of the fish filets were already gone, but there were still bins of mussels and clams, as if they were waiting just for me! I happily ordered the reasonable portion of one pound of mussels, and gleefully thought about what vegetables to include in the broth! (I’ve written the recipe to serve four, below, based on the same proportions.)
And here comes the secret ingredient I came up with: fennel! Roasted fennel, to be specific. Along with fresh (farmer’s market) tomatoes, I sliced up a bulb of fennel, roasted it, and added it to the wine and broth that the mussels steamed in. Ok, I’ll admit, I ate a couple pieces of roasted fennel right out of the oven, but I promise most of the fennel went into the broth.
It’s easy to be a little bit afraid of cooking mussels. In fact, before I made them for the first time, I wasn’t sure what a “beard” was, or when they should be open, or when they should be closed, or how to tell if a mussel is clean enough so that you don’t end up with any grit in your broth. Fortunately, once you’ve made them once, you realize they’re actually very straightforward, and it’s not, actually, that easy to accidentally poison yourself.
These mussels, however, were a lot dirtier than the farmed ones I’ve cooked before (thanks, ocean). I ran them under running water for probably about ten minutes to wash away any dirt and sand, and scraped off any algae or seaweed from the sides with my fingernails, and, of course, debearded them by pulling off the clusters of hairs in their crevices. Â I was a little nervous that my cleaning wasn’t sufficient, but they tasted amazing, so I must have done ok.
And one last thing, before I get to the recipe. Please, please please, please please — do not discard the broth when you’ve eaten all the mussels! If you must, dunk a few slices of crusty bread into it and mop it up with that. But think broadly — extra broth can be reduced on the stovetop and made into a delicious sauce for pasta or spaghetti squash, or used to flavor soups and stews with a seafood twist later on! It’s intensely flavorful and deserves more than being thrown away.
Steamed Mussels with Tomato and Fennel
4 pounds of mussels, cleaned and debearded
8 shallots, sliced thin
8 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
2 tbsp coarse sea salt
6 tbsp olive oil
3 fennel bulbs
12 small tomatoes, diced
4 cups dry white wine
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tbsp chopped fennel fronds
Parmesan cheese, as desired
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Place the cleaned mussels in a large bowl. If any are open, pinch them to see if they close. If they don’t close, discard. If they do close, put them in the bowl with the others.
3. Cut the fennel bulbs into wedges, and toss with 3 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp salt. Place on a baking sheet and into the oven.
4. After about 10 minutes, remove the fennel from the oven and turn the wedges upside down. Return to the oven for about 8 minutes, or until caramelized and tender.
5. When the fennel is done, chop it into 1/2″ pieces, and set them aside.
6. In a large stock pot, saute shallots and garlic in 3 tbsp olive oil, with 1 tbsp salt, until tender.
7. Add the white wine, vegetable stock, red wine, and tomatoes, and cook for about 8-10 minutes, uncovered, until tomatoes are cooked and the broth is somewhat thickened.
8. Add fennel, mussels, parsley and fennel fronds, cover. Let cook for about 8 minutes, or until all the mussels have opened.
9. Remove from heat and discard any mussels that did not open. Spoon broth and mussels into large bowls, garnish with freshly grated parmesan cheese if desired, and serve.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as an appetizer.