The Belgians are a pretty amazing people when it comes to their beer, most people know this, I don’t think most people know beer isn’t the only thing they do well, though. They can also cook. Belgium actually has more Michelin rated restaurants than France and a culture that LOVES to eat, drink and be merry. Totally my kind of people.
Hart & I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go on a 10 day beer & food bender through Brussels, Brugge, Ghent, Bastogne and a dozen other small towns a few years ago and I think it is safe to say we fell in love. We toured more than 17 breweries in that long week, in all but three (Bavik, Orval, Rochefort) we were greeted by the owners and their families and in a few places had memorable meals prepared by these families with all of their local specialties. These people knocked my socks off with the care they put into preparing simple food incredibly well. Locally cured hams & meats, homemade sausages, fresh and aged cheeses, crusty hearth-baked breads, fresh vegetables simply prepared, light salads with tangy vinaigrettes…even at some of their best restaurants there was a lack of pretention that I loved and appreciated about their cuisine. We will be going back, just a matter of when.
One of the most fun meals we had was the mussel feast. We had one HELL of a day. Started with a 10am tour of Bavik where we drank Petrus Oud Bruin out of the casks as big as your house it is aged in then finished off with a couple bottles each in the tasting room before we went to lunch. Lunch was a multi-course affair at this ridiculously awesome revamped old train station that was now a really cool restaurant. They kept refilling our Petrus glasses so we kept kept drinking. Nothing quite like being silly drunk at 2 in the afternoon. They herded us all back on to the bus and we started the drive to Van Steenberge in Ghent. Most of us took a nap. Or passed out. Po-tay-to, po-tat-to.
Hart & I had met Jef, the owner of Van Steenberge, here in the states a couple times and he’s, well, awesome. Charming, funny, intelligent and engaging he quickly figured out that we didn’t want or need to hear his brewery tour script, we had heard it about 12 times already that week – beer is basically made the same way everywhere, so he started pouring and talking about his business. It was the most interesting tour we had all week truth be told. Jef likes to drink, we like to drink, drinking may have occurred in large quantities. Hart called for a keg of Piraat and Jef went and got one. Shit was about to get real. And it did. We were supposed to be at our mussel feast at 6, at 7 we were still at the brewery hanging out with Jef like we were all the bestest of friends catching up at a party. At 8 Jef decided that he would come with us to dinner because we were all drunk and starving.
We descended on this poor restaurant, a rowdy drunk bunch of Americans (Presented without comment ~ 8 of our group were Texans. Heh.) led by our drunk Belgian tour guide and Jef, the loudest of us all. Five minutes after we arrive Augustijn goblets are filled before us (and would be continuously filled through the entire meal at Jef’s insistence), baskets of bread are presented, empty buckets are strategically placed and gigantic bowls of Augustijn steamed mussels with leeks, garlic & tomato are heaped up and down the center of the table. Now THAT is how you do a mussel feast. It was incredible. I always liked mussels, but the ones we had that night were just amazing. Could have been the beer, could have been the company, they may have been just that good…no idea, but I haven’t cooked a mussel since in anything but delicious beer.
Mussels are a bivalve mollusk, most often farm raised in salt water, but they can live in fresh water, too. Most of the mussels available in North America come from Prince Edward Island Canada, apparently they have prime mussel growing water up there, for that I thank them. Mussels are the kind of seafood that you cook from alive, like lobster, making the most stressful part of mussels for dinner buying and storing before you cook them; they don’t live forever, more like a week or 2 from the day they are harvested if stored properly, which makes picking fresh ones and cooking them soon after you get them home key. My rule ~ I buy them the day before or the day I plan to cook them, no reason not to and it guarantees they are fresh.
How do you pick a fresh mussel? It’s actually pretty easy. You want the ones that are closed and smell like the ocean. Easy to do if you are picking them yourself, much harder if you are depending on the fish monger at the store to do it for you. Generally, if I am shopping at a grocery store like Market District, I will not buy any that are loose in the case on ice, I always ask for mine from the back and if they dont have any I buy something else. I prefer to buy these in The Strip where I can pick through the 2# bags they usually have out myself, but no matter where you buy them you want the shells to be closed on most of them. I’ve never not had some dead ones I needed to pitch, but it shouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 per pound you buy. As to how many to buy I usually get 1-1 1/2 pounds per person if its a meal, about 1/2 pound if its an appetizer and 2 pounds per person if I’m cooking for Hart.
They gave them to me ‘on the rocks’, wtf? Mussels need to be kept cold and are very susceptible to temperature changes. They should give you a bag of ice to throw on top of the mussels to make sure they do not get warm on the way home. They should NOT dump ice on top of the mussels themselves, the direct cold will kill them quickly, too. The goal is to keep them cool and alive, a bag of ice on top of them does that trick.
Ok, I have these creatures at home, now what? Clean & debeard them and get them stored until you are ready to use them. This is the most tedious part in my opinion but I think thats mainly because I used to do them 50-plus pounds at a time. Fill a large bowl or container with COLD water. Dump the mussels in and agitate them. Lots will float to the top, these ones are all sorts of perfect, remove them from the water and put them into a colander. Stir up the other ones and start sorting through them. If they are slightly open tap them with something, I use a paring knife usually, and see if they try to close up, an indication they are not quite dead yet; if they do put it in the colander, if they don’t dispose of them. Any that are open or damaged/cracked, clearly dead, throw away. My last batch of 4# I threw away 6 when I was cleaning them, not too shabby.
Debearding is cutting or pulling off any ‘beards’ that may be attached to the mussels. Most often the producers do a good job of taking them off, but a couple always sneak through. The ‘beard’ is the anchor that keep mussels attached to that which it grows on, nothing weird, just not very delicious and need to be removed; just pull them off.
(sorry for the horrid first pic of them swimming, for some reason it was the only one I took & it was AWFUL, even after I doctored it up. Bad me!)
Once they are cleaned I either set the colander into a bowl so any extra moisture can drip off, you dont want them to sit in funky water, or if my fridge is too full to fit a big ass bowl I put them into a container and cover with wet paper towels until I am ready to use. If I don’t have them in a colander or draining pan I rinse well before using them to make sure any funk water is gone – it tastes about as good as it smells – not very. The mussels need the moisture on the towels to stay alive, but you really don’t want them to be swimming in water at all. These are salt water creatures, fresh water isn’t all that good for them, really. I dont generally ice mussels at home unless I am not cooking them for a few days, which we already discussed I try to avoid, but if I do its bags of ice on top of paper towels on top of the mussels to avoid getting them too cold. Also keep them in the fridge until you are ready to cook them, same as with any seafood.
I know, I know…they sound so persnickety. They really aren’t, it took me longer to type this than it did to actually do all of it. I tend to be overly cautious with shellfish, it’s just the smart thing to do. Seafood is far more susceptible to temperature abuse issues than meat or poultry and I cannot guarantee how it was handled before I bought it so I err on the side of caution and make sure I handle it as perfectly as I can.
The mussels are clean and hanging out in my fridge. Now what? Now the easy part – cook them. The basic method for cooking mussels is the same no matter the ingredients. Sweat your aromatics, saute the mussels in the aromatics long enough to get the pan HOT, add your cooking liquid to a fanfare of sizzles & steam, cover & let steam for around 5 minutes, remove the opened ones, discard any that haven’t opened yet if there are any, reduce and finish the sauce, pour over the mussels and eat with a basket of crusty bread so you can sop up the sauce. Start to finish, not including the prep time for the aromatics, is about 10 minutes; with the aromatic prep its maybe half an hour depending on how quick you are with a knife. The only special equipment you need is a big saute pan with a lid.
“I don’t like mussels, they are chewy” means you have only ever eaten overcooked or cooked from frozen mussels. When cooked properly and fresh mussels are sweet & tender. The key is to take them OUT when they are cooked. They are cooked when they have opened up and look like the big picture above, cook them longer and they get tough and grainy, nothing I want to eat. Mussels are not the same as clams or oysters either, so dislike of either of those has naught to do with mussels. If you dig shrimp give mussels a shot, they are not as firm texturally, but the sweetness is similar. They also do not taste ‘fishy’ if you handle & store them right, most often any funkiness comes from not rinsing them before you use them after being stored for a couple days. These reasons are why I only order mussels when we are from places that specialize in them and know how to handle and cook them and generally prefer to make them myself.
I have used just about every flavor of beer imaginable when making mussels – working as the chef for Belgian themed restaurants with amazing beer selections gave me free reign to play and I did. My personal favorites to use are Belgians – blondes (Leffe, Augustijn), triples (Bornem XXX, Ename XXX), doubles (Petrus Dubble Bruin or Oud Bruin, Bornem or Grimbergen XX), ambers (DeKoninck) and witbiers (Wittekerke). They have a depth of flavor that works beyond well in the sauces. That said I have used a ton of US beers, too, but all of the same basic flavor profiles as the Belgians I listed up there. I know I say this a lot but for mussels I stay away from hops and bitter. Mussels are far too delicate and grab a lot of flavor quickly. No reason to ruin a perfectly sweet mussel with bitter reduced hops. This recipe calls for a Gueze, an unflavored Belgian lambic, that is sour and citrusy when reduced, perfect for mussels.
I prepared 3 different recipes to share with yinz, the one we liked the best I’m putting in this post, the other 2 will be in another post tomorrow because this post got looooong. To quote Hart “I have no idea why I have ever eaten a mussel prepared any other way than this” re: the fennel, orange and gueze preparation that was, if I say so myself, pretty effing amazing. The combination was brilliantly bright, with the citrus and sour beer really accenting the fennel beautifully. I added some fresh thyme, too, to bring it all together. These will be def be made again. And again. And again. This recipe is for 4#, enough for dinner for 2 or a snack for 3 or 4.
Fennel, Orange & Gueze Mussels
- 4# Prince Edward Island Mussels, cleaned
- 1 bulb Fresh Fennel, thinly sliced (I save some fronds for garnish)
- 1 whole Shallot, thinly sliced
- 2-3 cloves Garlic, minced
- 2 Oranges, juiced (about 4 oz total, I prefer fresh squeezed)
- 8oz Gueze or Unflavored Belgian Lambic
- 4-5 stems of Fresh Thyme, stems removed
- 6 Tbsp Butter
Heat the saute pan over medium heat and melt 2 Tbsp of the butter. Add the fennel, shallot & garlic and sweat until tender and sweet smelling – you want the harshness of the garlic & shallot to cook out completely but not take on any color.
When the aromatics are sweated out crank the heat to high and add the mussels. Saute in the pan until it is HOT and the mussels are coated in the butter and aromatics. Season with some salt & fresh ground pepper, squeeze in the orange juice and add the beer. It should sizzle & pop when added. Lid the pan, leave it on high and steam the mussels for 4-5 minutes.
Take off the lid and start to pull the cooked mussels out, leaving the flame on high. You can use a slotted spoon, I pull them out with my fingers but I don’t have much feeling in those anymore so I can do that. Transfer them to your serving bowl. If there are any left upopened at this point get rid of them, there is usually 1 or 2 that happens to.
Keep the heat cranked, add the thyme and reduce the sauce by about half. Taste the sauce and season it if it needs it. When it gets thickened and bubbly add the remaining 4 Tbsp of butter and swirl in to melt, this is called ‘mounting with butter’; it thickens the sauce and melds all the flavors together. Pour the hot sauce over the cooked mussels, garnish with some fennel fronds to make it pretty and get it on the table.
I serve mussels with a heap of crusty bread and a crispy salad to make a full meal of it. For better or worse you want to eat them all in one sitting – these do NOT reheat well or work easily into leftovers – they get tough recooked.
The other recipes I will be posting tomorrow are a Bacon & Bleu Cheese made with a Belgian double and a more traditional Belgian favorite of Leeks, Garlic & Tomato made with a Belgian amber ale. Both so yummy.
Do not fear the mussels! Embrace them! I used to thing a crab leg feast was the epitome of an awesome summer on the porch dinner…not any more. Mussels for the win every time!