My love affair with mussels started in earnest when I went with Arne on a business trip to Europe. His business was in Luxembourg, so we took some time to travel the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. We started in the Netherlands, visiting the canals of Amsterdam and the windmills of Zaanse Schans, and eating the best French fries ever in Haarlem (from a paper cone with a generous drizzle of mayo).
Okay, I have to share this side story, even if it’s not the world’s most appetizing. My family is from Decatur, Illinois, home of Archer Daniels Midland company. ADM makes a lot of corn products, including oil and the infamous high-fructose corn syrup. Whenever we visited my Grandma Hall, and later when I went to college in the same town, my nose would be assaulted by ADM’s pervasive smell. If you really worked at it, you could convince yourself it smelled like French fries, but it wasn’t a pleasant scent at all.
When we visited Zaanse Schans – a tourist park with windmills, museums, goats, and awesome savory pancakes – I was hit with the same smell, which I hadn’t smelled in years, as we got off the train. I asked Arne, “Why does it smell like Decatur?” We wandered the nearby town a little, ate the best butter cookies I’ve ever tasted, and watched barges laden with huge drums labeled “COCOA” wallow down the river. And then I saw it, the answer to the mystery: A huge pipe between two buildings labeled “ADM.” There is an ADM cocoa factory in Zaanse Schans, and it smells exactly like the ADM processing plant in Decatur, Illinois. (Incidentally, I have read that the ADM plant and others in the area process 25% of the world’s cocoa.)
Sorry – back to mussels. It was on the second part of this trip, the time we spent in Brussels, that I really fell in love with mussels. The Belgians love their mussels, even if the best specimens come from rival country Holland. It seemed like every restaurant served them, huge steaming cast-iron pots of them, and no matter how giant the bowl was, there were never leftovers. One of my favorite memories is of strolling down the street in Brussels, watching candlelit sidewalk diners slurp their luscious mussels, knowing I would have some again soon. The only thing better than the meaty, heavy-bellied mussels themselves was the bread, always present and meant to be eaten sodden with the delectable, briny juices at the bottom of the bowl. Oh, and the inevitable French fries – it was never just moules, always moules et frites – dipped in mayo or in those incredible juices.
We can’t get those insanely good Holland mussels here, but the black mussels available at Whole Foods or other good fish vendors are also delicious. And mussels are a snap to cook. Apparently there used to be a lot of scrubbing and debearding involved, but modern farmed mussels are very clean. They just need a quick rinse and a check that they’re still alive. Then you pop them in some hot tasty broth – in this case the classic wine and garlic plus some chopped tomato – which they will make even more tasty with their brine, slap a lid on, and wait five minutes.
Serve with lots of good bread for soaking, a ramekin of mayo (I use Hellman’s cut with a little lemon juice), and French fries if you’re super ambitious (Trader Joe’s makes some good garlic fries that you heat in the oven). You can pull the mussels from their shells with a fork or pull the top shell off and slurp the mussel straight from the shell, but either way your fingers will get juice on them, so provide plenty of napkins. And don’t forget an extra bowl for the discarded shells.
When you buy mussels, make sure the person who sells them to you selects them carefully and avoids giving you open ones.
Mussels with White Wine, Garlic, and Tomato
Serves: 2 to 4 Time: 20 minutes
3/4 pounds mussels per person (up to 3 pounds)
1 tbsp olive oil or butter (or use more butter!)
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 cup white wine
1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh would be nice, but I always use Muir Glen)
Rinse the mussels in cold water and check that they’re all tightly closed. If any are open, give them a sharp tap (I drop them onto the tile counter from a couple inches up). If they don’t close within a few seconds, discard them.
Heat the olive oil in a soup pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Saute the garlic for 30 seconds or so. Pour in the wine and tomatoes and bring to a rolling boil.
Tip in the mussels and clap on the lid. Let cook for 5 minutes, giving a stir once to redistribute the mussels so they all get similar amounts of heat. Check the mussels – you want them all to have opened. If they haven’t, stir again and let them cook another minute or three until they have.
Serve in big warmed bowls and enjoy!