Cooking Mussels

Cooking mussels is one of life’s great pleasures.  I am a big fan of mussels, and my favorite place for eating them was Belgium where I spent time wintering and local cruising. In season they are plentiful, fresh and affordable.

First job when cooking mussels is to remove any barnacles on the mussels if they are wild caught. Best method is a stiff brush and scrub under running water. Also take the opportunity to remove any seaweed that is still attached

Next its time to scrub the mussel shells to clean them. The best method is the use of a colander and rinsing under running water. Do not be tempted to immerse or soak in water as this will kill them. If still alive you can place in a saltwater bath which will keep them going, and they will filter the water and expel any sand and so on.

Cooking Mussels Preparation

The next task for cooking mussels is the beard removal.  You just have to grab the beard, or byssal threads as they are called, which are those stringy threads coming out of the two half shells, just pull it firmly. If it is hard to pull out use kitchen scissors to cut it

To repeat the buying checks, the mussels should be fresh and shiny and have that sea smell. Do another check for life, if a shell is slightly open tap them and make sure they close. All mussels should be closed tight before cooking. Check there are no damaged shells.

If you are simply steaming them put a few centimeters of water in the pot and when boiling add the mussels.  Cook for 3-4 minutes when all should open up. Don’t eat any that do not as there is a risk of poisoning from microorganisms. 

Moules Mariniere. (Sailors Mussels)

Beside cooking mussels I have had some great mussel meals, especially when I spent a long period moored up in Belgium. The various seasonal mussel meals were absolutely wonderful.  The best and most memorable meal of mussels I have ever devoured was while tied up in St Peter Port, in Jersey, Channel Islands. This is as close as I have come to matching it and have made this recipe many times. Hope you enjoy it. Serve with fresh bread or sourdough to mop up the sauce. This is from my Great Cruising Cookbook.

Ingredients – 24 mussels, 3 shallots (fine chopped), 1 cup dry white wine (and one for the cook), 6 tbsp butter, 1 ½ tbsp of plain flour, 1 clove garlic, (crushed), 1 tbsp parsley (chopped), ½ tsp dried thyme, ½ cup of cooking cream, salt, black pepper. 

Method – Scrub and debeard the mussels and rinse well under cold running water 

1. Place the mussels into a frypan, small wok or a suitable pot. 

2. Add in the fine chopped shallots, crushed garlic and thyme. 

3. Add in the white wine and then cover. 

4. Bring to the boil and boil gently for 4 – 5 minutes. 

5.  Check that all the mussels have opened. 

6. Remove and discard any that stay closed. 

7. Take off the heat and pour any liquid out and reserve it. 

8.  Put the reserved liquid into a saucepan and boil until it reduces by about 50%. 

9.  In a bowl cream the butter and flour together with a spatula until you get a smooth paste. 

10. Slowly whisk in the paste to the reduced liquid, until the sauce boils and thickens. 

11.  Stir in the cream gradually and then add in the chopped parsley. I also use fresh cilantro instead of parsley sometimes as it works well. 

12. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. 

13. Place mussels into serving bowls and spoon over that sauce. Blisss!!!!! Cooking mussels is fast and well worth the effort.

Belgian Beer Mussels

Moules-frites or mosselen met friet are simply mussels cooked with onions and celery and served up with fries. When it comes to cooking mussels the dish is often said to be Belgium’s national a dish.  The best quality Belgian mussels come from the Schelde, which is the river flowing between Belgium and the Netherlands exiting at the North Sea. 

I have done a bit of sailing in this area. If transiting the Schelde be careful, it’s a very busy shipping channel up to Antwerp. Years ago I was coming down river from Ternuezen to Ostend and my engine overheated and I dropped the hook just inside one of the fairway buoys to fix the problem. Watching those big container ships moving through was a tad scary. Lesson on the engine, all that muddy silty water can plug up engine water coolers very easily. 

Belgian Beer Mussels

So it is cooking mussels season. Mussel season is generally late summer to early spring. Besides wild caught a lot of mussels in markets are farmed mussels from Zeeland in the Netherlands. Some researchers found a reference to something similar in some old records from 1781, but the Belgians were quick to utilize the humble potato when it arrived from the New World in the 16th Century. Like many great dishes mussels were once considered peasant poor people’s food. Not any more, it’s a food match made in heaven. If in Belgium or the Netherlands absolutely check into one of the many friteries or freetkoten and buy some Frites with Mayonnaise. So many ways to eat mussels, some of the local eateries where I used to hang out had a blackboard menu of 20 different mussel dishes. You can order Moules natures, which is basic cooked with leeks and celery and some butter.  Then there is my favorite as given in the above recipe, moules a la creme which are mussels steamed with white wine and cream, and another classic Belgian method is mussels with Belgian beer.  Use both in the cooking mussels and in the eating.

But I must inform the uninformed that Belgium is famous for beers, there are over 300 breweries and 1500 Belgian beer brands. There are the Abbey Beers and Trappist beers brewed by Trappist monasteries, where monks do much of the work and use the income to support the monasteries and for social programs. The most well known beers are Chimay and Orval, and I really like many of the other brands. They are ideal for the cooking mussels recipe below.

Belgian Beer Mussels Recipe

Ingredients – 1 kg Mussels, celery stick (fine chopped), 1 leek (sliced into ¼ inch slices, 2 cloves garlic (Chopped), 1 bay leaf (fresh if possible), 1 tsp fresh thyme (Dried if nothing else), 2 tbsp shallots or yellow onion (fine Chopped), 1 cup Belgian beer (or a craft beer – one with a good wheaten/hop flavor), 1 tbsp Italian parsley (chopped), Salt, Black pepper

1. Heat oil in a large pan, wok or high sided skillet over medium-high heat. 

2. Add in some butter and cook celery, leek, onion and garlic for 1 minute until leek softens. 

3. Add in the beer, bay leaf and thyme and raise to the boil.

4. Add in the mussels, cover and steam for about 5 minutes until all the mussels open. 

5. Remove mussels, add butter to pot with juices, reduce and thicken the sauce, season with salt and pepper.  

6. Add in the chopped parsley and stir through well.

7. Serve the mussels in bowls and pour over the beer sauce.  Serve with fresh bread and cold Belgian Beer.

Note 1 - I have also adapted another recipe for cooking mussels by first frying some chopped bacon or lardons until browned and quite crisp.  Take out the bacon onto a paper towel. Add in when the sautéed celery, leek, onion and garlic are done and when the mussels are added in. 

Mayonnaise for the Frites

Cooking mussels is one thing but what about the frites? You can make your own frites using whatever type of potato that is available and they are best dipped in fresh mayonnaise. Belgians are rather particular about their mayonnaise. There are official standards by Royal Decree that specifies that it must be at least 80% fat and 7.5% egg yolk.

Ingredients - 1 tbsp Dijon mustard, 2 egg yolks, 1 cup canola oil, 1 tbsp white wine vinegar, 1 tbsp warm water, 1 tsp fresh lemon juice, Salt, Black pepper

Make the mayonnaise: Using a large bowl, start by whisking the mustard and egg yolks together. Keep whisking constantly, then slowly drizzle in the oil in a thin stream until it begins to emulsify, then whisk in the warm water, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. 

Making Belgian Frites Method 1

Ingredients – 2 lbs (1 kg) Idaho, Yukon Gold, Russet potatoes. Canola Oil, salt. 

Who would have thought making frites was an art form, but it is, and anyone who has had bad fried knows what I am on about. Making those wonderful crispy Belgian know what the secret is.  They are fried twice.  Cook them first time to get them tender and let them cool down and refry just before serving which transforms them.  Choose how thick you like them, in Belgium they are medium size baton. The potato variety is key to this. The Belgians use the Bintje variety which you can buy in some places. Any waxy potato will work but older starchy varieties work best. The Bintje is an old Dutch potato variety that has a really nice yellow flesh that has a creamy consistency and makes great frites. With some 4000 potato varieties in the world, it’s a tough choice. 

A thermometer helps make sure you get the oil to 325°F. (190°C.). Do small batches when frying as the oil temperature drops too much. Fry for about 2 minutes until they start to brown and crisp up.  After each batch place them in a wire basket to cool, or on paper towels and never cover them as they instantly go limp and almost inedible and unrecoverable. Other suitable frying potatoes are Coliban, Kennebec, Sebago, Russet Burbank, Yukon Gold. Best for frying are floury type of potatoes.  Russets are better soaked in iced water for a while given their very high starch content. 

Making Belgian Frites Method 2

There is more than just cooking mussels to look at, again we are perfecting the frites. This method begins with making the potato batons, and pat dry. Then you boil some salted water and add in some fries and blanch them in the boiling water for about 5 minutes. Then you remove them and plunge them into a bowl of iced water. Then after 30 seconds or so remove, pat them dry again. Leave them on a rack or paper towel to air dry ready for frying. This evidently reduces the sugar content and ensure a lovely golden color. Use a deep fryer or I wok on board, and heat the oil until 150°C. Do small batches at a time and let the oil temperature recover between batches. As above remove and let sit ready for later refrying. Time to refry? Bring your oil temp up to 180°C. Do small batches and don’t crowd the fryer or wok. When done then place on paper towels and sprinkle salt over them. Cooking mussels and how to cook seafood.