January 31, 2005
Flexing your mussels

open mussels.jpgMy mother is a big fan of mussels. Each time she visits Paris we try to find a good mussel restaurant, with varying success. (The flea market north of Paris is a good hunting ground.) This time around, though, I resolved to make her some mussels myself because I had found a great recipe: mouclade.

Mouclade is a speciality of the Poitou-Charentes region, where the Critic and I spent a long weekend with our friends David and Carol last autumn. On previous trips to the area I had mentally turned up my nose at the mouclade because it just didn't sound great to me. It involves store-bought curry powder, and I'm afraid I'm something of a foodie snob. But this time around, I couldn't eat the raw oysters and mussels that are also a speciality as I was pregnant. So I swallowed my prejudices...and found them delicious eating!

There are times when it is a pleasure to announce one was wrong and this is one of them: mouclade is a delicious dish, one that will even convert non-mussel eaters like my Critic to eat them. It is rich and slightly spicy, with the fishy mussel flavor coming through underneath...well worth the cost of buying yourself some curry powder!

The following recipe is, as you will see, rather labor-intensive. It's not complicated or difficult to follow, but it will take you a certain amount of time. On the plus side, though, it makes a fantastic dish for dinner guests. First, they will love it and be truly impressed by your cooking skills! And secondly, it's one of those dishes that you can easily prepare in advance and just slip in the oven ten minutes before you want to serve. Again, it makes you look like the perfect host.

Serves three as a main dish or six as a starter

2 kilos of uncooked mussels, as fresh as possible
2 onions, chopped finely
1 clove of garlic, also finely chopped
1/2 cup of dry white wine
1/2 cup of pineau de charentes
1 heaping tablespoon of curry powder
1/3 cup crème fraîche
2 egg yolks
a little unsalted butter
pepper to taste (you won't really need salt)

In a large pot, melt a knob of butter and add the onions and garlic. In the meantime, scrub your mussels very well, eliminating any "beard" and getting rid of all the silt and sand. Throw away any mussels that are cracked or damaged and any that don't shut when you tap them. (If they stay open, they are already dead and there's no telling how long they have been dead, so they are potentially very very bad for your digestive system!) Once the onions are limp and golden, add the wines and bring to a boil. Toss the mussels in the pot and cover. Keep the heat high so that the liquid comes back to a boil and steams the mussels. It should take about ten minutes to cook them adn you'll know they are done when they all pop open.

Once the mussels have all opened, remove the pot from the heat and leave the lid off. When they are cool enough to touch, take each one and snap off the shell half that does not have any meat attached to it. (Reserve the cooking liquor.) If you have oven-proof plates, your presentation will be a lot nicer. Place the shells in a single, overlapping layer either on plates or a single larger platter.

Once you have removed all the mussels from the pot, turn the heat back on under the cooking liquor and boil for a few minutes to reduce. Stir in the curry powder and crème fraîche. At this point, I used a bit of flour to thicken the sauce. The various recipes I consulted before making my version used either egg yolks or flour and in retrospect I would use the egg yolks as they make the sauce richer. (Also, they don't involve quite so much furious whisking to get rid of lumps!) So turn off the heat under the sauce, mix a little of the hot sauce with the egg yolks and then whisk the egg yolk mixture into the bulk of the sauce. Add the chopped parsley.

Drizzle the sauce over the open mussel shells. Be generous; you'll have plenty of sauce and if you serve the mouclade with some bread none of it will go to waste. Up to this point, you can make the mouclade in advance of your guests and store the plate(s) in the refrigerator until you are ready to put them in the oven.

Ten to fifteen minutes before you want to serve the mouclade, place them under the grill or broiler on your oven and leave them until they are bubbly and the sauce has started to brown in places.

Traditionally, mouclade is served as it comes out of the oven. However, if you want to put a twist on this classic charentais dish, I would suggest serving it over a plate of spaghetti. The pasta gives you another vehicle for the delicious sauce, just as it does in my favorite pasta dish, linguine with clams. That's what I did with the leftovers, having made the above quantity of mussels as a starter for three!

A note on the history of the charentais mouclade: I can't find any information on this! None of my friends from the region were able to say where or when the dish was first made. My own theory is that the combination of bivalves and curry spices may have come from sailors returning from Mauritius. Poitou-Charentes is on the Western coast of France and Mauritius is the only place I know of in the Indian Ocean to have a French Connection. It's only a theory, though!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at January 31, 2005 9:42 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

What a great photo! I love mussels, especially when someone else is cooking them.

Posted by barrett on January 31, 2005 at 10:22 AM

What can you substitute for pineau de charentes? Since my local liquor store wouldn't sell it (I live in the middle of nowhere, NJ), I know they wouldn't have this. They only sell the big name brands of liquor.

I would love to make these, as I love mussels. I just had some Fra Diavolo at my favorite Italian restaurant in Somerville on Saturday. Yummy. They could've been much hotter IMHO. Otherwise they were great.

Any suggestions would be appreciated, Meg.

BTW, I love my Sal de Bolet! I just used some in a Sea Salt Bread today.

Thanks again.


Posted by RisaG on January 31, 2005 at 5:25 PM

Risa, you could substitute a fairly sweet sherry or a light port or any fortified wine. Pineau is a bit sweet, which I think compliments the curry flavor really well. That said, some of the recipes I consulted just called for white wine alone!

I'm so glad to hear you like the sea salt! I'm still working on the translation you asked for, so you should have an answer later today.

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 1, 2005 at 5:59 AM

This sounds great. At what point does the creme fraiche get added, or is it a garnish?

Posted by Linda in Florida on March 8, 2005 at 1:20 PM

Whoops! Can't believe I left out such an essential ingredient! It gets added with the curry powder and I've corrected the recipe accordingly. Thanks much for pointing out the omission!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 8, 2005 at 1:37 PM
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