Home cooked meals are common in my house, but those meals never include seafood. I mean, never. Ironic for two Boston-to-Chicago transplants, huh? Seafood is not my favorite food category, although I’ve been known to enjoy a stray shrimp or fish dish now and again. So, how funny that the first dish that came to mind for the Belgian July feature was mussels. That’s right—those little black shelled bivalve mollusks with which I have so little experience! Moules frites (mussels and fries) is synonymous with Belgium and Belgian food. Some even call it the national dish of Belgium. In the spirit of culinary adventure, Beertasteslike presents our take on Belgian moules, or mussels.

Adam loves mussels. Usually, I’ll eat a couple, then pick around the rest. I end up stealing bread and dips of the herby, oniony, salty, slightly bitter broth. That's my favorite part. Luckily, everyone comes out pretty happy in this arrangement. Much of this shellfish aversion may come from my Polish heritage. While we Poles love our herring, carp, trout and other fish, shellfish are pretty much alien. One time when Adam and I spent Christmas in Poland, my mom insisted on serving shrimp as one of the dishes for dinner. I’m not even sure where she was able to find them. She spent over 30 years in the US, so she developed a love of cocktail shrimp and other American delicacies. She loves Red Lobster to this very day, like any proper senior citizen. In any case, she might as well have put a severed head on the table. The looks on my cousins’ faces were priceless! I still laugh when I think about it…anyway. I’m Polish and we don’t really eat stuff like this.

Map of Belgium showing Schelde (Scheldt) River from wikipedia.com

Moules frites, or Mosselen-friet in Dutch, is said to have originated in Belgium, but this dish can be found throughout France, the Netherlands, parts of Germany and beyond. Historically, mussels and potatoes were food for the poor and because Belgium is crisscrossed with fertile rivers, mussels were abundant and available. Now, because of their popularity, most of the mussels consumed in Belgium (approximately 3 kg or 6.5 pounds per person per year) are farm-raised in the Netherlands. Still, the most delicious and esteemed mussels are from the Schelde River that travels across the country to the North Sea.  

There are an incredible number of ways to prepare moules frites. It’s an entire genre of food, not just a simple peasant dish! Some of the popular and classic options include the internationally recognizable marinières (with white wine, shallots, parsley and butter), natures (with celery, leeks and butter), a la crème (steamed in white wine, then thickened with flour and cream), a l'ail (with sliced and minced garlic), and about a million other options with chili, curry and everything in between. We will be making the modern and equally popular moules à la bière, where the wine is swapped for beer in the steaming liquid. This is a modern take on Belgian mussels and has become increasingly popular with the rise of the craft beer industry.  

I kicked the frites to the curb for this recipe. I know, I know – utter blasphemy! Here’s why – I just did not want to fry anything, and then have a vat of oil sitting around. I don’t have a deep fryer, nor was I going to invest in one now. Really good fries require a double frying process, once at a low temperature to cook the interior of the potato, a cooling down period, and then another cooking at a high oil temperature in order to crisp the exterior of the fry. I wanted to focus on the portion of the dish that would require beer, an actual recipe, and some fun technique. Instead of fries, or cheating with freezer fries, we picked up a glorious loaf of farmhouse bread, cut thick slices, drizzled them with olive oil and stuck them under the broiler. This ended up being the perfect thing to soak up all the delicious beer steaming liquid from the mussels.

First things first – where could I get the freshest possible mussels in the Midwest? Luckily, we live near one of the best seafood places in the area, Hagen’s Fish Market. Their fish and seafood is flown in fresh daily. We drove the whole 5 minutes to Hagen’s and picked up 2lbs of PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels for a whopping $7.99. PEI mussels are cultivated in the cool waters surrounding the island. To be honest, I had no idea, and was pleasantly surprised, that they were so inexpensive. The rest of my recipe was based on what I like and what I thought would taste delicious from all of my research. The dish came together very quickly after the initial chopping was done, and that didn't take long either. The vegetable base is shallots and celery sautéed in olive oil and a couple pads of butter, with parsley and tarragon, lots of fresh pepper, lemon and a dash of salt. Pour in your beer, add your cleaned mussels, cover, steam for 6 or so minutes, and you’re done.

The biggest point of contention was, of course, the beer. What beer would we use? Allagash White? Wittekerke? Hennepin? A homebrew farmhouse ale? Maybe a wit? No, a saison – but which saison? Which one?! All of them had potential to be wonderful, right? Right?! The decision was excruciating, and it took what seemed like years to debate the finer points of each one. In the end, we decided on what now seems like an obvious answer – Revolution Bottom Up Wit. We decided that using something local was the way to go, and we both really enjoy this wit. It didn’t hurt that it was super fresh. It was canned a mere five days before we purchased it. It’s light, crisp, with strong coriander and citrus notes. Perfect to go with the seafood and lemon, and the tarragon (if you’ve never had tarragon, it’s a delicate licorice flavor) and coriander in the beer really sang together. Remember when I said I didn’t really like mussels? I would absolutely make them again, but I would add garlic to the vegetable base this time, and maybe a small dash of red pepper flakes for a little tinge of heat.

This recipe is easily adjustable for more or less. Honestly, a lot of this is to taste, so taste often and well. Two pounds of mussels seems like a lot, but remember that’s they’re actually pretty tiny and mostly you’re paying for the weight of the shells. This was a good amount for two people, and we ate more bread and broth than mussels. Really, you just want mussel broth, right? Enjoy!

Moules à la bière (Mussels with Beer), Beertasteslike Style

Note: A word of caution to those who are new to mussels or have never had them: they really stink when they are raw. And I mean REALLY. It’s the nature of the beast. If you can get past the raw shellfish smell after you clean them, you’re in for a delicious treat. You must also keep them extremely cold and on ice if you think you’re going to store them at all. In fact, don’t store them. Cook them within an hour or so of getting them home. Mussels do not really keep in the fridge. Some people will tell you that they’ll keep for a few days, but I wouldn’t chance it. Eat them FRESH. They are actually alive, and you need to cook them alive. If you have any unopened mussels in the pot after cooking, throw them out! Those are dead and not good to eat.

2lbs mussels, cleaned and thoroughly debearded
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large stalks of celery (3 if they’re wimpy), finely chopped
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 ½ tablespoons tarragon, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 can of Revolution Bottom Up Wit or your favorite Belgian style beer
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, approx 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper

1 loaf of your favorite farmhouse or rustic bread
Olive oil for drizzling

Clean and wash your mussels. The lovely people at Hagen’s checked our mussels to make sure they were alive and debearded them pretty well. I went through each one and took off any remaining beards and scrubbed them well. Here’s an easy piece from Serious Eats on cleaning and debearding mussels.

Chop all your ingredients and get them ready for adding to the pan. Heat a large deep pan with a fitted lid (lid off for now) over medium heat.

Add oil and butter. Let butter melt completely but do not brown the butter. Add shallots and celery. Let cook for 3-5 minutes until slightly softened over medium heat. Add half of salt and pepper.

Stir quickly, and add herbs. Add juice of ½ lemon. Add beer, careful of bubbling. Gently stir all ingredients together.

Add all mussels into the pan. Stir, cover tightly with lid, and turn heat up to medium-high. Let cook for 3-4 minutes without opening the lid. After 3-4 minutes, open lid and gently stir mussels with cooking liquid. Mussels should be open at this point. If all are not open, close lid and reduce heat to medium low for another 2-3 minutes. Open lid, taste broth and season to taste with remaining salt, pepper and lemon juice. Turn off heat, and let the pan sit and steam for a couple more minutes while you prepare the bread.

Turn the broiler on to high. Slice bread into thick slices. Place on baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Broil for 3-4 minutes on each side until desired toast is achieved.

Serve the mussels with all of the broth in a large bowl for sharing. Place an empty bowl along side for the empty shells. Remember to dip the bread (or fries) in the broth! Drink the same beer with the mussels as you used for the broth.