Adapted from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells (HarperCollins, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Patricia Wells.
Serves 4 as a first course, 2 as a main course
I feel as thought I am a magnet for guarded culinary secrets: Wherever I am in Paris, it seems, people want me to know about their special recipes. One day while a taxi driver was taking me from restaurant to market to specialty shop, he confided that his wife made the best mussels in the world. So delicious that everyone, he said, raved about them and his wife never, ever, revealed her secret. I did not even have to pop the question, and pretty soon he had shared his spouse's most guarded recipe: The key is Gewürztraminer, the aromatic wine from France's Alsace region. At first I was a bit doubtful, for acidic white wines such as those from the Loire, are most commonly used with mussels. Well, now I am a convert. The faint sweetness of Gewürztraminer mirrors the sweetness of the finest mussels.
I always look for the tiniest mussels in the market, for I find them to be the most flavorful. Some of the best in Paris are the moules de bouchot from Le Baie du Mont-St. Michel. Don't forget the crusty baguette to soak up the memorable sauce.
Equipment: A large deep skillet with a lid
1. Thoroughly scrub the mussels, and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good; if it stays open, the mussel should be discarded. Beard the mussels. (Do not beard the mussels more than a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Note that in some markets mussels are pre-prepared, in that the small black beard than hangs from the mussel has been clipped off but not entirely removed. These mussels do not need further attention.) Set them aside.
2. In a large, deep skillet, combine the shallots, butter, and sea salt. Sweat—cook, covered, over low heat—until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil, uncovered, until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the mussels, sprinkle generously with black pepper, and stir. Cover, and cook just until the mussels open, about 3 minutes. Remove the mussels as they open. Do not overcook. Discard any mussels that do not open.
4. Transfer the mussels and liquid to four warmed shallow soup bowls. Sprinkle each with thyme, parsley, and black pepper. Serve immediately, with finger bowls.
Note: I use an inexpensive Gewürztraminer when preparing this dish, and I serve the same wine with the mussels.
What I Learned: Years ago, a fishmonger warned me against taking mussels home in a plastic bag and storing them in the refrigerator. Mussels stored in a sealed bag will suffocate and die. Rather, when you get home from the market, either place the mussels on a shelf in the refrigerator with the bag opened or, better yet, transfer them to a large bowl and cover the bowl with a damp cloth.