Serves: 4 people. Preparation time: 30 minutes.
Mussels are the quintessential French seafood dish. It can be served as an appetizer, mail dish or mid-day delight. Moules Marinières may be the most popular preparation of mussels in Mediterranean France where my family originated near the Côte d'Azur. It's traditionally served with a crusty, usually toasted and buttered, baguette. A perfect pair, the bread serves as a sponge to soak up the rich broth after the bivalves are emptied by the diners. This version is my twist on the southern French style with an Italian influence by using vermouth instead of table wine and tomato chunks instead of large onion slices.
For the Shellfish:
Your local supermarket has mussels in the seafood department. The fresher, the better, because these are LIVE animals. The poultry, beef, fish and other edibles can't claim that. If you can find plump PEI (Prince Edward Island, Canada) blue mussels, all the better. Mussels will survive refrigerator storage, under a damp cloth, up to 2 days. Cleaning them is a bit of a bother. Rinse them in cold water and scrub off any barnacles or dirt, one at a time. Any found with broken shells or those that won't close with a sharp tap with a spoon, should be discarded - because they are dead. A small percentage of duds can be expected, but many lifeless mussels in the batch should be returned to your fish monger. Most mussels will have a "beard". It's that fiberous tail at the shell's edge. Use a paper towel to grab the beard and sharply pull toward the hinge end of the mussel to remove it. If you don't find any with beards, you have good quality seafood where the purveyor has done the job for you. Hold the cleaned mussels under cold water until it's time to cook them. Get the bread ready to toast (below).
A Dutch Oven works best, but any pot with a lid, large enough to hold them all, will work too. Add the water, butter, garlic, shallots, salt and start the boil. Stir occasionally as the mix warms. Just before the liquid boils, drain the waiting cold mussels and carefully add them to the hot pot to be steamed. Pour in the white vermouth now and cover the pot. Simmer with a light boil for 2 minutes. As best you can, stir the mussels trying to bring the bottom ones to the top and vice versa. Recover and boil 2 minutes more. Stir again, then add the cream and tomato pieces. Stir it all again. Cover and turn off the heat. Let sit on the stove for a minute or two while you toast the bread (below). Don't over-cook the mussels. They should open wide when cooked. Stir one more time and ladle out the mussels into 4 large soup bowls. Spoon out the creamy broth too. Garnish with the parsley. If you find any that did not open at all, it's a dud, don't serve it. Same in a restaurant, a large number of unopened cooked mussels should be sent back to the kitchen. Any good chef knows you don't send out "duds" to the customers.
For the Baguette:
Slice the baguette crossways into 4 equal pieces, then lengthwise slice each piece. Butter the inside of each. Few toasters can handle this width, so on a cookie sheet, lay out the bread crust-side-up first. Return to cooking the mussels. After the mussels are steamed, broil the bread crust side up until hot, not toasted. Then flip them over and broil them until golden brown. When the mussels are served, add two pieces of bread to each bowl before presenting.
Serve in large bowls with a discard bucket or bowl, or two, on the table for the shells. It's nearly impossible to eat mussels without using the fingers to hold them while you probe a cocktail fork in to twist out the meat. Ample napkins are suggested too. Dipping the bread in the broth afterwards is commonplace, even though table etiquette says it's really a no-no. This dish pairs well with a dry Chardonnay, especially the premium brands that are silky smooth and woody. You've just had a trip to heaven!