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Mussels with fennel and star anise

Mussels steamed in a buttery broth of shallots, garlic, tomatoes, and star anise are an easy, delicious, sustainable dinner. Use this recipe to wow your sweetheart on Valentine's Day with a home cooked meal.

By Blue Kitchen / February 13, 2013

This dish combines many wonderful flavors, a faint hint of licorice, a bite of garlic, and bright tomato blend with a buttery broth.

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A funny thing happened on the way to this recipe, and it illustrates the twists and turns that often occur in our kitchen. The idea to do something with mussels started with a comment on my Black Bean Soup with Ham Hocks post, oddly enough. In passing, reader Dani H. mentioned that she’d finally gotten around to cooking the Moules Marinières recipe I’d posted a couple of years ago. The next day, I came across a recipe for mussels using fresh ginger and lemongrass. OK, the delicious, easy-to-cook bivalves were back on my radar screen.

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Blue Kitchen

Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.

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Lemongrass, ginger, and fresh mussels were acquired. I was busily mapping out how I would make the recipe my own. Then I took a quick look at past Blue Kitchen mussels recipes (and was shocked to find four of them) and realized I had cooked mussels with lemongrass and ginger already. Granted, it was a curried version, but it still seemed like time for a new direction. 

Sticking, for the moment, with the Asian direction the ginger and lemongrass had suggested, I thought of star anise. This seed pod of an evergreen tree grown in China, Vietnam, and Japan is a staple in Eastern Chinese cooking. It also is featured in Vietnamese and Indian cuisines.

I assumed my search for “mussels star anise” would yield Asian or Asian-influenced dishes. Instead, numerous recipes took advantage of its distinctive licorice taste to enhance that same flavor in fennel. This appealed to me for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve been enjoying cooking with – and eating – fennel bulbs lately. Ziti with Sausage and Fennel has become an instant favorite at our house. And second, this unexpected mash-up of ingredients from different corners of the globe is at the heart of much of Blue Kitchen’s approach to cooking.

There are any number of reasons to love mussels. They’re delicious and insanely versatile, playing nicely with all kinds of cuisines and flavors. Mussels are fast and easy to cook – in fact, about the only way to screw them up is to overcook them. They’re cheap too, especially for seafood. The most I’ve ever paid for them is $5 a pound – usually, they’re less.

One of the coolest things about mussels, though, is that they’re sustainable. Even – or perhaps especially – the farmed variety. They’re filter feeders, so farming mussels doesn’t require feeding them wild fish and doesn’t deplete the wild fish stock, as does farming of many other species. And they actually clean the water, instead of polluting it as some farmed seafood does. In fact, David W. Dunlap reported in the New York Times last summer that New York City was installing an artificial mussel bed in the East River. No, the city isn’t looking to get into aquaculture; their goal is to have the them help clean up the river.

Need another reason to love mussels? This dish just might be it. There are so many wonderful flavors working together here, from the faint, fresh hint of licorice from the fennel and the star anise to the bite of the garlic, the buttery, winy broth, the bright tang of the tomato and the briny goodness of the mussels themselves.

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