Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.
Whenever I tell a friend that I'm making mussels for dinner, I tend to hear a similar refrain: "I've never made mussels before," or "Impressive!" or "Isn't that hard to do?" Even my mother, a highly competent cook, always responds dubiously when I relay my shellfish dinner plans. In response to this trepidation, I always preach the value, ease and simplicity of preparing a tasty pot for dinner.
Perhaps the reluctance is driven by safety concerns. The "R" rule for shellfish—eating clams, oysters and mussels only in months containing the letter—is persistent. We've all heard horror stories about "bad mussel" food poisoning, and the fear is valid. Warm weather can result in a "red tide"—an algal bloom that can spread toxins to filter feeders. Today, most mussels are farm-raised and red tides are closely monitored, so commercially caught or harvested mussels from North America should be a safe bet.
Once prepped, the mussels are ready to showcase their versatility. I typically go the simple route, with a basic aromatic broth of garlic, shallots, wine and herbs, but have also experimented with Thai curried versions and Basque-inspired, chorizo-topped creations. On a recent chilly night, as I sat bundled up in my apartment, I decided to concoct a hearty, stew-inspired dish.
After braving the snowdrifts on New York City's streets to pick up some fresh mussels and thyme, I quickly diced an onion, a few carrots and a large parsnip that I had in my kitchen. I grabbed a can of cannellini beans from the pantry to add some volume and more protein to the dish and a clove of garlic for a pop of flavor. A few splashes of white wine served as the liquid base necessary to steam and open the mussels.
From chopping to cleaning to cooking and steaming, the entire process took less than 20 minutes. Cleanup was simply wiping down a cutting board and rinsing the single pot needed. As I sat down to enjoy the tasty, satisfying meal with my roommate, I witnessed another set of eyes opening to the simple enjoyment of a dinner built around mussels.
For a pairing, we first tried the wine that I'd used for the broth, a dry, floral Alsace Pinot Gris with beautiful notes of mineral and stone fruit. I'd fallen hard for the white while taking a sip before adding it to the pot, and wanted so badly for it to make the mussels sing. Alas, it tasted fine with the veggies and shellfish, but it didn't excite me as I'd hoped.
I then turned to a Spanish Godello, with rich, exotic tropical flavors and firm acidity. Unfortunately, the texture of the white felt heavy and almost a bit tannic, weighing down the dish on the whole.
The last bottle I opened was a bone-dry Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, in the Loire Valley. The white was tart yet subtle, and acted as a spritz of lemon on the shellfish. Stone fruit flavors balanced the acid and yielded a rounder wine more suited to the cooked vegetables and beans. It was an easy choice for a simple weeknight dinner.
Pair with a Chenin Blanc such as Jean-Marc Gilet Vouvray Sec Domaine de la Rouletière 2013 (87 points, $20).
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Approximate food costs: $13
1. Thoroughly scrub and debeard mussels. Tap the shells of any opened mussels and discard those that do not close.
2. In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, parsnips, garlic, salt, pepper and thyme. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until onions are translucent and root vegetables are tender.
3. Add white wine and bring to a boil. Add white beans and mussels. Cover and steam for 3 to 4 minutes or until the majority of the mussels have opened. Discard any that remain closed.
3. Scoop mussels, beans and vegetables into serving bowls. Pour the remaining broth over the top and serve with crusty bread. Serves 2.