Bastille Day is perfect for mussels, frites

Bastille Day is July 14. Celebrate France and its culinary contributions with this classic pair.

By , Blue Kitchen

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    Mussels steamed in wine with shallots, garlic, and lots of parsley and oven-fried pommes frites flavored with herbes de Provence.
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"Lafayette, we are here.” Those famous words, marking our returning the favor to France in World War I for their vital assistance in our Revolutionary War, were undoubtedly followed by the less well known, “Now, when do we eat?”

Because in addition to contributing to American independence, the French are rightly far more known for their contributions to food and cooking. And not just for their stellar, elaborate concoctions. It’s more their understanding of how a few well-chosen ingredients perfectly combined can become something wonderful – and their daily celebration of food in even the simplest dishes. Bastille Day (July 14) is all the excuse I need to feed my inner Francophile in the kitchen.

Mussels are quintessentially French. While they’re caught or farmed and served around much of the world, they’re absolutely ubiquitous in French bistros. Moules Marinières, also known as sailor’s mussels and cooked in a white wine sauce, is as much of a menu fixture as steak frites. Mussels are mild in flavor and because, like lobsters, they’re sold live, absolutely fresh tasting. They make for beautiful presentation, too, appearing far more elegant than their low price might suggest.

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And of ever-growing importance as many fish species are threatened by overfishing, they’re sustainable. In fact, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the go-to authority on seafood sustainability, they are a Best Choice. Most commercially available mussels are farmed these days. While aquaculture can be an environmental disaster with certain species, here’s what Seafood Watch says about mussels farming: “The U.S. imports most of its mussels from developed nations with stringent environmental regulations. As with related species – scallops, oysters and clams – farming methods for mussels are environmentally sound. Mussels do not rely on fishmeal or fish oil as part of their diet. Diseases are rare, so antibiotics and chemicals aren’t necessary, and the farming operation often benefits the surrounding marine habitat.”

Search “Moules Marinières recipe” on Google and you’ll come up with more than a quarter of a million results. Not kidding. They’re all over the board on both ingredients and methods. Tomatoes, no tomatoes. Shallots, no shallots. One recipe even called for cooking it in a pot on a grill, but that was Bobby Flay, and he’d probably have you make ice cream on a grill. As usual, I read a number of recipes and created my own mash-up, borrowing basics from a few and adding my own touches.

Frites are also quintessentially French. Or perhaps Belgian. Both do bang-up jobs of them. The frites here are less than authentic, whatever that is. Deep frying anything has always been a deal breaker for me, for a variety of reasons. And most frites are deep fried twice! Still, these are delicious – and a healthier alternative. Tossed with garlic-infused olive oil and herbes de Provence, they’re roasted or “oven-fried” until golden and slightly crisp on the outside. Will they make me give up real bistro pommes frites (or even bar menu french fries)? No. But they do offer an unexpected change of pace that will have friends asking for your recipe.

Moules Marinières (Sailor’s Mussels)
Serves 4 to 6

3 pounds mussels, scrubbed
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 medium shallots, chopped (or 1 medium onion)
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups dry white wine
1 bay leaf
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-1/2 cups chopped flat-leaf parsley

Clean mussels. Scrub mussels with a stiff brush under cold running water. Discard any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you tap their shells. Remove beards which may appear along the hinge side of the shell, using a sharp knife or pulling with your fingers. Set aside in a bowl. One benefit of farmed mussels is that they are generally cleaner than wild caught ones. This is the most time-consuming part of this dish – the rest of it happens quickly.

Heat a large, deep, lidded sautée pan or skillet over medium flame. Add olive oil and one tablespoon of butter and swirl pan to combine. Add shallots and garlic and cook until shallots soften, stirring often to avoid browning, about 3 minutes. Add wine, bay leaf and a generous grind of black pepper and bring to a boil. Do NOT add salt – the mussels will add plenty of briny, salty goodness to the sauce. Taste sauce at the very end to see if you need to add salt. We did not. Add mussels to the pan, crowding them in if necessary, cover and cook undisturbed for 4 to 5 minutes. Check to see if the mussels have opened; if most have not, replace the lid and cook just a minute or two longer.

Transfer mussels to a large bowl with a slotted spoon, discarding any that have not opened, and cover with a towel to keep warm. Increase heat under pan to high and bring sauce to a boil, letting it cook down just slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter in chunks, swirling pan to melt. Stir in parsley and remove from heat. The sauce will be more like a broth than a thickened sauce, which is exactly what you want. Divide mussels among 4 shallow bowls (pasta bowls are perfect for this), spoon sauce over them. Serve with slices of baguette for sopping up the sauce.

Pommes Frites. Make the garlic-infused oil for these frites at least several hours in advance. I let mine steep for a couple of days. One recipe called for just using minced garlic, but I find that minced garlic loves to burn in the oven. Besides, using the infused oil makes for a more subtle garlic hit, letting the herbes de Provence take center stage.

Oven-Fried Pommes Frites with Herbes de Provence
Serves 3 or 4 (or over-serves 2)

2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons good quality olive oil

2 large baking potatoes, Russet or Idaho
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence (see Kitchen Notes)

Make the garlic-infused oil. Bash the garlic cloves with the side of a chef’s knife and discard the skins. Roughly chop garlic and place in a jar. Add olive oil, cover jar with lid and shake for a moment (the jar, not you). Set aside for at least several hours and up to a day or more.

Make the frites. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Scrub the potatoes under cold running water. Peel the potatoes if you absolutely must, but the frites are better if you don’t – they look cooler and taste better, and you don’t throw away major nutrients if you leave the skin on. Slice lengthwise into fry-shaped strips. There are handy kitchen gadgets for creating uniform fries, but I like hand-cut fries (my, this is an opinionated recipe, isn’t it?).

Soak potato strips in a bowl of cold water for several minutes, changing the water twice, to remove some of the starch. Pat dry and toss with 2 tablespoons of garlic-infused oil (the extra tablespoon was just so you’re not having to squeeze oil from the garlic cloves), salt, pepper and herbes de Provence.

Arrange potatoes in a single layer on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and roast in oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Herbes de who? If you’re even a semi-regular here, you know this dried herbs mix is a regular in our kitchen. Herbes de Provence seems to be one of those classic ingredients that instantly evokes France, or more specifically, Provence. So I was stunned to learn that it actually wasn’t created until the 1970s. According to wiseGEEK, “Herbes de Provence are loosely defined as an herb mix which includes both French and Italian herbs, in a blend of sweet and savory. The end result is complex in flavor and can be used on a variety of foods.” The mix varies, depending upon who makes it, but the most common ingredients are basil, bay leaf, lavender, marjoram, orange peel, rosemary and thyme. Thyme usually takes the lead role. Do yourself a favor and track some down; it quickly elevates everything from roasted chicken to last-minute sauces. We buy a really good version at The Spice House.

Related post: Mussels in Tarragon Cream Sauce.

Terry Boyd blogs at Blue Kitchen.

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