Whenever I think of mussels, I always think of The Sopranos. Remember Tony’s hot-headed driver, Perry? Tony called him Penne Arrabiata after the famously hot pasta dish. He was a muscle man with biceps that pushed his shirt seams to the limit, obviously not a bad trait when you’re driving around a Mafia Boss.
Mussels also make me think of this great restaurant that Mr. B and I used to walk to when we lived in San Francisco. It was right down the street from us and was called Plouf. The entire menu was made up of variations of steamed mussels. Oh, and they had fries, too, really wonderful fries.
But, that was a very long time ago and while Mr. B is the house fish cook, or as he likes to say in a very, very thick French accent, the poissonnier, and while I like to use my very, very thick accent to call Mr. B Muscle Man, I’m the one who cooks up the steamed mussels in our house.
Steamed mussels are an exceptionally quick and easy dish to throw together. With a side of fries (oven baked or french fried) and some crusty bread, mussels make a satisfying winter meal.
Mel’s Steamed Mussels
2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and cleaned
1/2 Bulb of fennel, finely diced
2 T Fennel fronds, finely minced
1/2 a small yellow onion, finely diced
1/2 cup of Italian parsley, washed, stemmed and coarsely chopped
4 Garlic toes, finely minced
1 Tomato, seeded and finely chopped
1 Lemon, thinly sliced
1 T Red pepper flakes
1 Cup of White Vermouth
1/4 Cup of Legendre Herbsaint or Pernod
4 T Unsalted butter
1. Melt butter in a high-sided pot or enameled Dutch oven (don’t use cast iron) that will comfortably fit the mussels.
2. When the butter is melted, add the fennel bulb, the onion and the garlic and cook until soft and the onion is just turning golden.
3. Add the red pepper flakes and the tomato. Cook until the tomato begins to soften.
4. Add the white vermouth and then the mussels.
5. Pour the Herbsaint over the mussels and scatter in the lemon slices.
6. Put the lid on and steam for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid to check the mussels; they open when cooked. Give them a stir and then top with the parsley and the fennel fronds and put the lid back on for 3-4 minutes until the parsley and fennel softens slighty.
7. To serve, pile the mussels into individual, deep serving bowls that have been warmed in an oven. Spoon the sauce and the cooked vegetables over the mussels and sprinkle with a pinch of fresh chopped Italian parsley.
*Legendre Herbsaint is a botanical infused alcohol made in New Orleans as a replacement for Absinthe, which was outlawed in the 1930s because it contained wormwood and supposedly made people go insane. The front of the bottle features a picture of a famous New Orleans French Quarter bar, The Old Absinthe House. The bar was used as a setting in one of the commercials featured on this year’s Superbowl. The commercial, for Mercedes Benz, had a man sitting at the table with the Devil getting ready to sign his life away. This allusion isn’t too far from the truth since a high consumption of Absinthe meant you and the Devil were getting pretty darn cozy together.