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We’ve partnered with Brooke Bass of Chocolate + Marrow and Washington-based Columbia Winery to celebrate the bounty of the Pacific Northwest through a series of dinner recipes. Each dish features a twist—a progression from a classic or a new approach using time-tested ingredients.
Today: The French bistro classic flexes its mussels.
My grandmother is the most magical storyteller. When I was young, we had a little routine that never seemed to vary: She’d feed me a dinner of something classically Southern (probably crispy fried catfish or oyster soup) and, afterwards, she’d dole out dessert and five silver bells (her pet name for Hershey’s Kisses) before tucking me into bed. It was then that she’d lull me to sleep with stories of her travels and the food she ate along the way.
Of all of the stories she told—and she had a lot, having visited all seven continents!—the tale that made me the hungriest was of her first trip to Belgium.
She traveled there in her late forties, and ordered her first moules frites while sitting on an outdoor patio, sipping a glass of crisp white wine. She described the way the bivalves soaked up the garlic and wine broth and the burst of excitement that came along with dipping crisp frites into the hot soup.
(I should add that her love for mussels is legendary. When she traveled to Nova Scotia, my grandmother, whose name is Mary Lou, was even given a new name: “Mary Mussel.”) With my stomach grumbling—despite having just eaten dinner—I’d lay awake wondering why we were always cooking gumbo and fried chicken for dinner when we could be having whatever this delicious-sounding dish was.
As I got older, I began to understand just what she was so excited about. (It didn’t hurt that by then I’d begun to develop a relationship with wine too.) In my early twenties, with my friends and myself too broke to afford much, cooking mussels offered an inexpensive way to feel like we were capable of hosting sophisticated dinner parties like “real adults.”
There was nothing quite like the satisfaction of scooping the fleshy meat from shallow, delicate black shells and then slurping up the leftover broth with crisp, twice-fried potatoes. But the frites component intimidated me back then—a few bad experiences with a fryer will do that to a person—so I’d opt to serve the dish with a crusty baguette instead. In fact, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I took a stab at making my own frites. And I was amazed at how simple it really was—just peel, cut, soak, heat the oil (carefully to avoid burns!), fry, and fry again.
Since I now host “real adult” dinner parties regularly, my love for steamed mussels has gone beyond the classic white wine, garlic, and herbs version that my grandmother introduced me to so long ago. The broth you cook mussels in is malleable and can easily be adapted to suit your mood—and what you're drinking. For example, you can make a green curry broth with eggplant and cilantro, or beer broth with spicy chorizo and peppers.
But my favorite lately is a bold seafood broth inspired by classic Moroccan cooking (and my grandmother's sweet stories, of course). It's made with shallots, garlic, and a rainbow of spices (think cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger), and garnished with bright green mint. And because any broth benefits from a touch of alcohol, I've incorporated sherry into this one to bring a little sweet smokiness into the mix. But if sherry is sparse in your cupboard, a crisp white wine— like Columbia Winery's Chardonnay—works just as well with the aromatic base (and since you're only using a 1/2 cup in the recipe, pour a glass at dinner, too). Just don't forget the frites!
For the frites:
3 medium Russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into long 1/2 inch strips (or smaller, depending on preferences)
50 ounces canola or other neutral-tasting oil
Salt, to taste
For the mussels:
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dry sherry or Chardonnay
1 1/2 cups seafood stock
2 teaspoons harissa, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound live mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Fresh mint, for garnish
Photos by Brooke Bass
With an elegant balance of fruit-driven flavors and a firm acidity, Columbia Winery makes wines that are well-suited to complement a variety of meals and entertaining occasions. Their Chardonnay, with its pear, apple, and tropical fruit characters, is in good company with these Moroccan-inspired moules frites.