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!
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
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 Incidentally, it is a myth (based on outdated information) that mussels which fail to open during cooking should be discarded; according to recent research they are perfectly safe to eat.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.