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Jun 9, 2009
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Wine With . . . Baked Mussels

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       


There is much to love about mussels.  They are nutritious, being both low in fat and high in protein.  (Mussels have almost the same protein content as beef, with only a fraction of the calories -- 100 calories per pound of mussels).  In addition to being inexpensive, they also are easy to prepare, especially since farmed mussels (about the only kind one can buy these days) do not have the pesky beards or mud common to their wild brethren. 


When it comes to cooking, mussels are incredibly versatile.  The most traditional preparation is to steam them in a little white wine, but an almost infinite number of other flavors can be incorporated into a steam bath.  (You can simmer them in a tomato-based marinara sauce, for example, or in the Thai flavors of coconut milk and lemon grass; or you might try the cream-and-curry treatment that's popular along France's Atlantic Coast.)  Steaming, however, is just one of many options.  There's soup, including Billi Bi, a classic and decadently rich French recipe with mussels swimming in cream.  You also can fry them, a method popular in Italy (cozze fritte).


Mussels also lend themselves to more formal preparations.  We discovered this recently when we baked them with a topping of bread crumbs and cheese, and arranged them on a large lemon-garnished platter which we passed around the table as a first course.  Delicious!   


Baked Mussels


2 pounds mussels

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons finely minced shallot or onion

1 medium tomato, seeded and diced

1 cup bread crumbs

½  teaspoon red pepper flakes

Salt to taste

½ cup white wine

1 teaspoon thyme

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan Cheese

Lemon wedges

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley


Just before cooking the mussels, rinse them thoroughly in cold water.  If there are any beards pull them off.  (Do not do this until just before cooking as it kills the mussels).   Discard any mussels that have cracked or broken shells, or that don't close after you tap the shells with a spoon.  Incidentally, it is a myth (based on outdated information) that mussels which fail to open during cooking should be discarded; according to recent research they are perfectly safe to eat.


In a skillet, warm the olive oil.  Add the shallots or onions and cook over medium heat until soft.  Stir in the tomato and cook for a minute or two, then add the bread crumbs, stirring to blend the ingredients.  Season to taste and set mixture aside.


Put the wine and thyme in a large pot.  Bring to a boil and add the mussels.  Cover the pot and simmer, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels have opened (about 5-7 minutes).  With a slotted spoon transfer mussels to a rimmed baking sheet.  Break off the top shells and moisten the mussels with a little of the cooking broth.  Distribute the bread crumb mixture over the mussels and top them with the grated cheese.  Just before serving, place the pans in a pre-heated 400 degrees oven for about 5 minutes, or until heated through (do not overcook or the shellfish will be tough).  Arrange the mussels on a platter garnished with lemon wedges and sprinkle with parsley.  Serve immediately.  Serves 4-6



Approx. Price


Brandal, Rias Baixas (Spain) Albariño 2007 (Imported by Quintessential LLC)





The wines that paired best with our baked mussels, four whites and one rosé, all shared a rich mouthfeel, allowing them to convey an impression of weight and richness.  The cheese, breadcrumbs, and tomatoes, rather than the shellfish themselves, made that especially important.  We tried some tasty lighter whites, but they all seemed to fade when sipped with this dish.  Back in January when we experimented with different wines with steamed mussels, flavor rather than texture proved most important.  (Check out that edition of 'Wine With' in the archives.)  The fact that a different sort of wine worked best this time proved once again that recipe or preparation is even more important than the choice of main ingredient when you're selecting a wine to complement what you're cooking.


This Albariño's waxy texture gave it the necessary depth to pair nicely with the hot baked mussels.  Though not as fragrant as some examples of this varietal, the bouquet hardly mattered as the dish itself was filled with enticing aromas.




Fairview, Darling (South Africa) Chenin Blanc 2008

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)





The fruity sweetness in this wine proved to be an added bonus as the hint of sugar added a new flavor element to the pairing.  What made the wine shine especially brightly with the dish, however, was the wine's rich texture.




Helfrich, Alsace (France) Pinot Gris 2007

(Imported by Underdog Wine Merchants)






Though the flavors tasted very different (pear-scented fruit as opposed to peaches), this wine's success with the mussels was due to the same factors as the Chenin Blanc's-slightly sweet fruit and a full, satisfying texture.




The Ojai Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley (California) Chardonnay 'Solomon Hills Vineyard' 2007




A very classy Chardonnay, and the most expensive wine we're recommending, this well-balanced wine tasted rich and ripe but not over-oaked or overblown.  We loved it both with the mussels, and then on its own, as we poured another glass to sip when doing the dishes.





Michel Torino, Calchaqui Valley (Argentina) Malbec Rosé' 2008

(Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons Ltd)







The tomatoes in the dish led us to try a couple of red wines and this rosé with our baked mussels.  The reds proved to be too much, overpowering the subtle shellfish flavor, but the rosé tasted great.  Bright and fresh, it still felt rich and lavish, just what we found this dish demands.