Flexing Mussels 

The dos and don’ts of preparing the lowly black bivalve.

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Lots of folks—maybe even most of them—aren’t fond of eating mussels. And they tend to point to the fact that mussels, by and large, have always been a “throwaway” food, readily available for free, or at least very cheap. But then, there was a time, too, when New York City Bowery taverns used to give away salty caviar in order to get customers to drink more beer. And while I wouldn’t equate mussels with caviar, both have distinctly proletarian beginnings in the culinary food chain.

I’m one of those people who was never particularly enthusiastic about mussels. But that changed dramatically during a trip to Belgium. In Brussels, notwithstanding stops at Michelin-starred restaurants like Bruneau and Comme Chez Soi, I found myself diving into big bowls of steamed mussels and sides of french fries on a nearly daily basis. In the process, I became a mussel convert and gained some insight into why most Americans don’t favor the lowly bivalve.

It’s surprising that I was willing to try mussels in Brussels at all, given my unfortunate experience in Paris the week before heading to Belgium. I was parked at a sidewalk table of one of my favorite Paris brasseries, a place called Bofinger. Located across from the Opera House on the Rue de la Bastille, the 140-year old Bofinger specializes in fresh seafood. Their raw bar is a shellfish lover’s dream. Well, maybe it was one too many glasses of Chablis or just my feeble attempts at French that caused me to order a plate of raw mussels. When the waiter said, “But zee mussels, you know zay are raw, oui?” I replied, “Well, of course they’re raw. They’d better be raw! I want them really raw!” A nanosecond after my waiter departed to fetch my order of mussels, I realized what I had done. In my jet-lag-scrambled mind, I’d been ordering raw oysters, not mussels. So there was only one thing to do when my plate of raw mussels arrived and that was to douse them in “mignonette” and eat them ... raw.

But as evidenced by my pattern of marriages and divorces, I’m a firm believer in climbing back up on the horse that bucked you. And so in Brussels after too many meals of “waterzooi” and “stoemp,” I turned to the Belgian culinary staple of “moules et frites,” mussels and fries. I made sure they were cooked.

With the exception of a handful of trendy “nouvelle” joints and a couple of three-star Michelin restaurants, you’ll find “moules et frites” on virtually every menu in Brussels. And they’re cheap. Especially at the restaurants along the narrow, cobbled street called Rue de Bouchers (Butcher’s Street) in Brussels, where tables spill out onto the winding closed-to-traffic avenue and hawkers stand outside the entrances championing their restaurants as the best and the cheapest. My favorite of these restaurants is the relatively upscale Aux Armes de Brussels, where you’ll find dozens of different preparations of mussels and frites.

It was at Aux Armes de Brussels that I hit upon why so many Americans don’t like mussels. It can’t be their appearance; so seductive and sensuous in that Georgia O’Keefe way. No, the reason we don’t like mussels in this country is that they are almost invariably overcooked. Don’t get me wrong: I’m clearly not a proponent of raw or even undercooked mussels. Been there, done that. But cooking mussels too long renders them tough and chewy, just the opposite of the plump, cloudlike mussels that exploded in my mouth with flavor in Brussels.

The mussels I’m talking about here, ubiquitous in Belgium, are steamed. The most basic version (see recipe in Food Matters) is nothing more than a pile of mussels (a pound or so per person is about right) steamed in a simple broth of wine or beer with cooked onions, garlic and parsley. It’s so simple to make that a 6-year-old could do it. And yet, in restaurants throughout this great nation, they screw it up by steaming the mussels too long, or worse, steaming them ahead of time and then reheating. Yuck. But then there are restaurants that get it right, too. In Salt Lake City, Au Bon Appetit and L’Avenue both do laudable versions of “moules et frites.”

In Belgium, mussel “season” runs from May through August, when the mussels are freshest. Diners are counseled to avoid eating mussels in months with the letter ‘r’ in them. But thanks to farm cultivation, in this country you can enjoy mussels all year ’round. And even in Brussels, places like Aux Armes de Brussels don’t stop selling steamed mussels just because it’s March.

There are few meals I now enjoy more than mussels and frites. In Belgium, “moules et frites” is almost always served with the steamed mussels in a big ceramic bowl and the french fries alongside wrapped in a cone made of butcher’s paper or the daily news. This is truly finger food at its best. And in Brussels I learned a nifty technique for eating mussels. Removing the cooked mussel meat from the shell with a fork tends to shred it. So do what Belgians do: Remove the meat from a small-sized mussel and use the empty shell like forceps to snag the meat from the other mussels. It’s a brilliant culinary tool in its simplicity.

When visiting France or Belgium I wholeheartedly recommend trying “moules et frites.” I also strongly recommend learning the foreign terms for “raw” and “cooked.” This advice may seem patronizing, but then don’t blame me if you find yourself staring at a plate of raw mussels in a foreign land.

AU BON APPETIT, 18 W. Market Street, 519-9595, L’AVENUE, 1355 E. 2100 South, 485-4494

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