Something big happened in my life a couple years ago. Taylor Shellfish Farms opened a store in my neighborhood. I’m a huge fan of, well, any shellfish to be honest. But mussels – moules in French – make me weak at the knees. Combined with fries and a crisp glass of white wine, it’s probably one of my favorite meals — ever.
In France, mussels are often referred to as moules de bouchot, which isn’t a type but a reference to the way they’re cultivated for harvest. Mussel growers install large posts along the coastline known as “bouchots” on which the mussels cluster. Legend has it that an Irishman Patrick Walton stumbled on this method after being shipwrecked off the coast of France in the 13th Century. In an attempt to catch birds for food, he strung nets from posts he set up in the water. Later, he noticed the posts were covered with mussels. Today, France has about 700 miles of bouchot posts along its coastline, mostly in the Brittany and Normandy regions. In the Pacific Northwest, the most common method for growing mussels is to suspend ropes from large rafts. The mussels attach to the rope, safely hanging above their common predators which tend to hang out on the bottom. That’s how the Taylors do it.
Credit for the winning combination of mussels and fries generally goes to the Belgians, who enthusiastically claim to have invented fried potato sticks and must be constantly irked when the rest of the world – especially Americans – keep referring to them as French fries. (When I lived in London, I lived near a Belgian-themed restaurant named Belgo in which servers dressed as monks offered up pots of mussels accompanied by piles of fries.) But the combination is a ubiquitous menu staple in France.
Mussels make for a quick meal. Conduct a wee bit of chopping, eight minutes cooking time and voila, dinner. I like to keep it simple: a little garlic, onion, leek or shallot, a bit of white wine, fresh herbs and a bit of tomato for color. For me, great bread is a key ingredient to assure the sauce doesn’t go to waste. Mussels cook most beautifully when steamed, not boiled, so resist the urge to cook them in too much sauce.
Moules à la Mariniére
If you don’t have shallots, feel free to substitute onion or leek. I sometimes toss in shredded carrots and finely chopped celery, too. For herbs, straight parsley works fine but I like to work in thyme, oregano and basil if they’ve available.
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
2 to 3 shallots, finely chopped, about ¼ cup
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 bay leaf
½ cup chopped tomatoes
½ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herb
3 lbs. mussels
2 tablespoons cream (optional)
Salt, coarse pepper
Prepare the mussels by rinsing well, the trimming off the filaments known as “the beard” with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors. Discard any with damaged shells or do not closed when gently tapped.
Place a pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat and add the oil. Add the shallots and stir until softened, about two or three minutes. Add the garlic and bay leaf and stir for another minute, then add in the tomatoes and stir until softened. Add the wine, the herbs, a pinch of salt and crank of fresh black pepper and cook until it reduces slightly, about three minutes. Add the mussels, cover and steam for five to seven minutes, shaking the pan from time to time until all the mussels open. (If any don’t open after cooking, discard.) If using cream, remove the mussels to a bowl, add it to the cooking liquid and let reduce briefly. Serve the sauce and mussels together while very hot.
My sister has been making this healthy, simple alternative to classic French fries for years. It’s easy to shift the flavor on these. Want truffle fries? Sprinkle with a little truffle oil or salt after cooking. Want something with a kick? Shake on a spicy Cajun spice blend. Be sure to line the bottom of the baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking map to avoid sticking; you can also cook them on a cooling rack settled on a baking sheet, too. I prefer to use Yukon Gold, but your everyday russet works perfectly well in this recipe.
3 large potatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning or paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Sea salt, ground coarse pepper as desired
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Peel the potatoes and cut into either wedges or sticks. Place in a bowl and coat with the oil and seasonings, then put in a single layer on a lined baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes, turn if needed and bake another 15 minutes to desired crispness.
French Tip: You can prep potatoes in advance and store in water, but be sure to drain thoroughly and even toss in a clean hand towel to extract excess moisture. Otherwise, the fries will steam from the inside and won’t get crispy.
Originally published in 2011. Updated and republished in August 2019. Photos by Kathleen Flinn, except for the mussel farm in Lilia, Brittany. That’s by Aleksey Stemmer.