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.

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

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.

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.

Mussels with fennel and star anise
Serves 2

A quick note: Prep everything else before you clean the mussels – or even remove them from the fridge. (See Kitchen Notes for more on handling mussels.)

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 whole star anise (available in Asian markets and many supermarkets)

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 cup dry white wine [may substitute cooking wine or vegetable broth]

1 Roma (plum) tomato, diced

freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds mussels

chopped fennel fronds, for garnish

crusty bread or baguette

After you’ve prepped everything else and are set to cook, clean the mussels. Farmed mussels are fairly clean to begin with and require little effort. Scrub them with a stiff brush under cold running water, discarding any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you tap them lightly on the counter. Remove the 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.

Melt the butter in a large, lidded sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel, shallot and star anise and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add wine and tomato and season generously with black pepper. Stir and bring wine to a boil before proceeding.

Quickly add mussels in a single layer and cover pan. Cook, shaking pan occasionally, until mussels open, 4 to 6 minutes (you don’t want to overcook and make them rubbery). Remove from heat. Discard any mussels that don’t open, along with star anise. Using a slotted spoon, transfer mussels to two shallow serving bowls. Spoon broth and vegetables over mussels. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve with crusty bread for sopping up the broth. Serve a simple salad alongside and you’ve got dinner.

Kitchen Notes

Just one note this time, but an important one. Treat the mussels right. When you eat meat or seafood, it means an animal has died for you to do so. Those of us who don’t hunt or fish are usually comfortably removed from that fact. Supermarkets, butcher shops and fishmongers wrap our fillets, steaks, chops and other cuts in plastic or paper for us, ready to be taken home and prepared. Mussels are another story. Like lobsters and a few other seafood choices, they’re live when you buy them. Remember that as you handle them.

Keep them cold. Ask to have them packed with a little ice when you buy them, and make sure the bag is left open, especially if it’s plastic; the mussels need to breathe. Then take them right home. There, store them in the fridge, without the ice. One fishmonger helpfully suggested putting them in a colander over a shallow pan; that way, they won’t end up sitting in any brine they cast off. Don’t put them in water; the fresh water will kill them.

For the same reason, don’t “rinse them in several water baths,” as some recipes suggest. It won’t kill them that quickly, but it will cause unnecessary irritation. And when it’s time to cook them, bring your broth to a full boil before adding them and cover the pan immediately after adding them. That will make the end as swift as possible. I say all this not to put you off eating mussels – or other seafood or meat, for that matter. Just respect the animals that feed us.

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