Cooking with liqueurs brings unique flavors and flair to dishes. Adding Pernod, the famed 200-year-old French liqueur flavored with star anise and herbs, to traditional French steamed mussels gives them a lovely, sweetly soft licorice flavor. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread to sop up the aromatic broth. And have a soup spoon handy. No one can resist slurping up every last bit of the juices.
Moules Mariniere, or Fisherman’s Mussels is easy enough for a weeknight dinner and fun for entertaining friends and family. At around five dollars per pound, mussels are both inexpensive and impressive. And they cook quick!
Tips for Buying, Storing and Cleaning Mussels
Buying– Fresh mussels should be closed or close themselves when tapped. This means they are alive, which is what you want. If they are closed and feel heavy for their size, they could be full of sand and dead. A good seafood counter usually sells mussel loose or in netted bags on ice. They should smell fresh like the ocean. Do not buy mussels that are chipped or broken.
Storage – Mussels are best cooked within a day of purchase. When you get them home, rinse them in cold water, place them in a large bowl and cover them with dampened paper towels until cooking time. Don’t leave them sealed in plastic bags.
Cleaning – Just before cooking, place your bowl in the sink and run cold water over the mussels. Soak for about 20 minutes. Scrub mussels with a brush and remove any dark, frizzy “beard” which is what anchors them to their mooring. Pull it off with your fingers. If it’s stubborn, you might need small pliers to remove it.
To make it easy, do your prep work ahead – chopping fennel and leeks for the broth, tomatoes and herbs for the garnish. Keep mussels refrigerated in a large bowl covered with damp paper towels until ready to clean and steam. With a soft bristled brush, scrub just before steaming. See the “tips” section at the end of this post for notes on buying, storing and cleaning mussels.
To prep your vegetables follow these tips. Cut the long celery-like stalks off the fennel bulb and discard, saving the fluffy fronds for garnish. For the leeks, use just the white and light green portion. Slice the leek in half and run it under cold water to remove any sand or dirt, then chop into thin slices.
For a quick lesson on dicing tomatoes, follow the photos above. Slice off the top. Cut tomatoes into quarters lengthwise. Holding your knife flat and parallel to the cutting board, remove the seeds and fleshy center. Then cut the quarters into long strips, and then dice across. The thinner the strips the finer the diced tomatoes. I prefer to use Roma tomatoes.
Start with the vegetables. Add a little olive oil to the pot and over medium low heat gently cook the fennel and leek in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook one minute. Move the pan off the heat and add the Pernod and white wine. This is for safety as liqueurs usually have a high alcohol content and are flammable. Always add alcohol to a pot or pan off of the heat.
Place the pan back on the heat and increase to medium. Bring the broth to a boil. Add the cleaned mussels, clamp on a tight fitting lid and wait about three minutes. Quickly peak under the lid and see if the mussels have opened. If they are opened, they are done. Place the lid back on for another minute and shake the pan to allow any closed mussels a chance to open. Turn off the heat and let the pot rest while you get the bowls. They should be served immediately while good and hot.
Distribute the mussels between warm bowls and divide the wonderful juices. Discard any mussels that are not opened. Sprinkle with the tomatoes and parsley or fennel fronds for garnish.
Helpful links with information, recipes and tools
All about mussels, from Wikipedia
Portuguese Seafood Stew (with mussels), from Dorie Greenspan and Chef Alain Morville
A fun article from David Lebovitz on eating mussels in France
Farmed mussels, a “best choice”, from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
Linguine with Mussels and Spicy Tomato Sauce, from Kristine Kidd
A great pot to steam mussels in, and for a soups, stews and many uses is the Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart Dutch Oven. They come in lots of great colors.