Thursday, July 10, 2014

Yours for the Taking: Mussels

Gathering shellfish in New England—clams of all sizes, mussels, scallops, oysters—is as close as you can get to a free lunch, especially when someone else does the gathering and gives you the benefit of their labor. I received such a gift the other day. My friend Wayne—a fish spotter and aerial fish photographer—called to ask if I’d like one of the three fish buckets’ full of mussels he had picked up after getting off a pilot boat early one morning in Snug Harbor to find them lying there at low tide, ready to scoop up. Big ones, too. Did I want some? Of course I did: wild shellfish is increasingly hard to get.  A bucket was way too much, but I did fill two bowls to the brim and headed home, thinking what to make. 

That was relatively easy.  While French in origin, the mussel soup Billi Bi shares our New England sensibility of simple elegance, and our fondness for mixing shellfish with dairy­—especially cream.  It has long been at home here, although I must say I don’t see it on menus as much as I used to.  Mussels make a good chowder, good salads, and of course the simplest preparation of all, Moules Marinière—but Billi Bi seemed the right thing to do with this large windfall.

The soup is quick to make once the mussels are cleaned, but cleaning does take a little time. They must be debearded, scrubbed, and checked to ensure that they are alive. Here is the method:

To clean and store mussels

Use your mussels as soon as possible. If you must store them for a few hours before cooking, put them into a bowl, cover with a damp towel, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator.  You can scrub them, but do not debeard until you are ready to cook them.  When ready to use:

Put the mussels in the sink and rinse with water; do not let them sit in water, however. Sort through the mussels and discard any that are not alive. Mussels should be shut tight. If the shell is open, tap the mussel on the counter firmly near the mid-point; if it is alive, it will close up. A mussel whose shell flaps open and closed when you press it between your thumb and forefinger is dead.

Debeard the mussel. Hold the mussel, hinge down or toward you, in one hand; with a paper towel in the other hand, grasp the fibrous byssus, or “beard,” and pull toward the hinge firmly to remove. Do not pull up. Discard the beard. Debeard mussels as close to when you plan to cook them as possible

Scrub the mussels all over; I like to use one of those stainless scouring pads.  Remove any small barnacles with the inside blade of a pair of scissors or the back of a paring knife.
Storing cooked mussels
Mussels can be removed from their shells and stored in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for a couple of months, ready to be used in salads or pasta dishes. Store in an airtight container with a little broth from the cooking or vinaigrette. 

Billi Bi

You will see that the first step to making this soup is similar to making Moules Marinière. If you want to make this several hours ahead to serve hot, leave out some of the cream and the egg yolk, and then finish it just before serving. Billi Bi can also be served cold; make it a few hours ahead and chill. Serves 8.

2 cups dry white wine
2-3 shallot cloves, peeled and sliced
1 large sweet onion, peeled and sliced
2 large ribs celery, slit in half and roughly chopped
4 T unsalted butter
4 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs thyme (or 1 tea dried)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground pepper

4-5 lb medium-large mussels, preferably wild

4 cups heavy cream
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Put the wine and all the vegetables, herbs, and seasonings in a 6-qt dutch oven or small stockpot. Put the mussels on top. Cover and bring to a boil; then reduce and, with the lid slightly ajar, simmer for about 10 minutes; the mussels should be open but still look moist. Strain through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into a large bowl or directly into a 3-4 qt saucepan.  Taste for salt; wild mussels in particular can be salty, but you can add a little salt at this point if you think it needs it. Set the broth aside. Remove the mussels from their shells and reserve for garnishing the soup. You could remove just some of them, and serve the rest in their shell.

When ready to finish the soup, bring the reserved broth to a boil. Over medium heat, add the heavy cream and let it come to a gentle boil, whisking. Ladle a cup or so of the soup into the egg yolks, whisking as you go. Slide the pan off the burner and whisk the egg yolk liason briskly back into the soup. Taste for seasoning. Keep it warm, but do not allow to boil again. It should be a lovely creamy yellow-white color.

To serve, ladle into small cups or rim soups. Garnish with two or three mussels (they will sink into the soup) and a sprinkling of very finely chopped parsley.

Don’t like mussels or have someone who doesn’t? Not to worry. This delicate cream soup is something almost everyone loves—just leave out the mussel garnish.

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