Mussel Power

Mussels cooked in beer

Mussels cooked in beer

One of my favorite pastimes during the year-end holidays is to cook with friends. With one friend in particular I get together around noon, we make a brunch for fortification and then start cooking for the evening meal when other friends will join us. Of all the things we made this year, I think the most successful was a surprisingly simple pot of mussels cooked in beer that was our Christmas Day afternoon "snack." When I posted a photo of the bivalve buffet on Instagram and Facebook I had many requests for the recipe, which I'm delighted to share here.

A Holiday Concept

The inspiration for the recipe came from two sources. First, my local fishmonger told me a few months ago that he'd located a source for some astonishing mussels, a mussel originally from the Netherlands. It was now being commercially farmed in the far northeastern U.S., in the cold Atlantic waters off the coast of Maine and he received regular shipments. I could only obtain them in a commercial 5kg bag, and that's a lot of mussels, so clearly a special occasion and good number of hungry diners was called for.

The availability of these mussels came to mind a couple of months ago, when I found a wonderful BBC television series featuring a disarmingly jovial chef named Tom Kerridge. Mister Kerridge is a publican, a pub owner in the charming town of Marlow in the UK, roughly halfway between London's Heathrow airport and the university town of Oxford. His pub, The Hand and Flowers, is notable first for Mr. Kerridge's cooking and second, for having had that cooking recognized by the Michelin guide and awarded two stars. The Hand and Flowers is the only pub in Britain that carries two Michelin stars. In one episode of his series Proper Pub Food, Tom Kerridge cooked mussels with ale, and a holiday idea was born.

I suppose the most famous mussel dish of all is the French or Belgian approach that cooks the mollusc in white wine and herbs. Chef Kerridge, coming from an ale-drinking background (what would a pub be without ale?) got some proper English ale for his cooking. And I, coming from a background of drinking practically anything that tastes good, scooted to my favorite local brewery, Miami's Wynwood Brewing Company.

The beer menu at Wynwood Brewing on Christmas Eve

The beer menu at Wynwood Brewing on Christmas Eve

Over the past year, I've become friends with Wynwood Brewing's owner Luis Brignoni and have developed a great love for the astonishing variety of small batch brews he and his mates crank out. Dropping by the tap room on Christmas Eve, I tasted through several of the new brews, all in the interest of thoroughness, of course. I settled on The Stiglitz, a beer made in the Märzen style, the style of an Oktoberfest beer. It's a lager, medium to full-bodied and slightly bitter. Wynwood Brewing's version is a beautifully balanced brew and I thought the edge of bitterness would be a nice foil for the hint of richness in the mussels.

In the kitchen Christmas day, I baked two round loaves of crusty bread and then with my friends made the huge pot of mussels. I adapted Kerridge's recipe only slightly from the one published in his excellent book designed to accompany the Proper Pub Food television series (this book is great fun - Kerridge's buoyant personality is on every page). His approach takes into account the British love of root vegetables and augments the traditional shallots and carrots with hearty celery root, then increases the texture of the sauce with a mighty dollop of crème fraiche (and the beer, of course).

The Recipe

Here's my adaptation of Tom Kerridge's recipe:

Ingredients (serves 8-10)

  • 75 grams butter
  • 6 large carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1 good-sized celery root, peeled and diced
  • 8 shallots, chopped fine
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 300 ml good, flavorful beer or ale (stout and porter are too strong and assertive)
  • 5 kg mussels, debearded and rinsed
  • 150 grams crème fraiche
  • 1 handful of parsley, chopped
  • half a handful of tarragon leaves, chopped
  • black pepper - a few good grinds of the pepper mill

Okay, I realize "a handful" is not a very exact measure, and that's okay. I like a lot of herbs in this recipe and my hands are big so it works out fine - I could just as easily have written "season to taste." If you have some chervil feel free to add that as well.

Procedure:

  1. Wash the mussels in running cold water. Discard any mussels with cracked shells and any open ones that do not snap shut when you tap a finger on the shell
  2. Melt the butter in a large pot big enough to hold all the mussels (but don't add them yet!)
  3. Add the carrot, celery root, shallots and bay leaves and cook over medium heat, stirring, until softened and aromatic - this should take 7 or 8 minutes 
  4. Pour in the beer and bring to the boil, then remove the pan from the heat and leave to one side
  5. Heat a large saucepan over high heat. Add the mussels and the vegetable and beer mix, cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, for 4-5 minutes, until the shells have opened. Discard any mussels that remain closed, then remove the mussels and reserve the cooking liquid (or, leave the mussels in the pot and carefully pour off the liquid into a broad bottomed sauce pan. The volume of liquid in the pan will be greater than the beer you added because the mussels will give off some liquid of their own). Either way, you want to separate the mussels and the liquid and then boil the liquid to concentrate the flavors.
  6. Continue boiling the cooking liquid until it reduces to about half its original volume - depending on the size of the pan you are using (a bigger pan will be faster) this will take 5-10 minutes. Then turn the heat to medium add the crème fraiche and the chopped herbs. Check the seasoning and marvel at how good it is - you probably will not need to add more salt but a bit of pepper might be needed. Pour the mix over the mussels and serve the mussels and liquid in large bowls. Give your guests plenty of warm crusty bread to sop up that sauce because it's divine.
The Mussel Man

A glass of beer would be very nice at this point. My gang was so happy with the beer, none of us asked for wine!

This dish was so popular everyone wanted it again, so we did it all over again on New Year's Eve and this time served it with Champagne. Almost any Champagne would be good with this, but to my mind a medium to heavy style is a better match than a lighter style like an all chardonnay blanc-de-blancs. I poured Deutz NV and Roederer NV and loved them both.

If you make this let me know how it works for you...

Cheers, and Happy New Year!