Quick to make, beautiful to look at and hands-on fun to eat, Mussels in Tarragon Cream Sauce make a delicious main course for two or a sociable starter for four or more.
There’s just something cool about eating with your hands. Intimate and involving, with a slouchy casualness. It’s something best done with significant others or really good friends, and usually involving wine or cocktails or really cold beer.
Steamed mussels are all that with an added layer of cool that chicken wings or burgers can’t match. Pulling open the shells to get at the sweet, briny mussels within, scooping up the creamy broth with empty half shells… even the clatter of the discarded blue-black shells as they’re tossed into a communal bowl. Depending on their preparation, mussels can conjure up little French bistros, Spanish tapas bars or lovely sunburned evenings at a beach rental cottage.
Usually, this kind of cool comes at a price. Not mussels. They’re downright cheap, especially compared to other seafood choices. Depending on where you’re shopping and the variety you’re buying, you can usually pick up a two-pound sack for $2 to $4 a pound. That two-pound sack will feed two as a main course or four [or five] as a first course.
And buying mussels isn’t just thrifty—it’s ecologically smart, especially if they’re farm raised. Mussels are generally farmed using a very low impact method, suspending them from ropes. They’re filter feeders, so wild-caught fish is not used in their feed; farming mussels does not deplete the wild fish stock, as does farming of many other species. Also unlike many other species, farmed mussels can actually improve the health of the environment they are farmed in by filtering the water.
Farmed mussels are a lot cleaner than their wild-caught brethren too. That means less scrubbing and de-bearding. Indeed, we’ve gotten some farmed mussels so clean that a simple rinse was all that was needed.
Mussels are versatile too. You’ll find any number of recipes for them, most nice and simple like this one. Some call for tomatoes or onions or leeks, some for saffron threads… there are any number of ways to go. This being my first time cooking them, I followed one of Marion’s favorite ways of cooking them, right down to substituting vermouth for the white wine many recipes call for. As Marion said about using vermouth for her Linguine with Red Clam Sauce, we prefer its slightly more assertive. less acid taste for this dish.
Mussels with Tarragon Cream
Makes 2 main-course or 4 first-course servings
2 pounds mussels [preferably farmed or cultivated]
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup dry dry vermouth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Clean mussels. Scrub with a brush under cold running water. Discard any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you rap their shells. Remove beards which may appear along the hinge side of the shell, using a sharp knife or pulling with your fingers.
Melt butter in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat and add garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add vermouth and mussels and cook, covered, until mussels just open wide, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer mussels with a slotted spoon to a bowl, discarding any that haven’t fully opened during streaming.
Make sauce. Turn up heat to medium high under pot of cooking liquid. You’ll notice you have more liquid than you began with—the mussels produce a nice broth that will add to the flavor of the sauce. Add tarragon to pot and cook until liquid is reduced by about half, about 3 minutes. Stir in cream and heat until it just comes to a boil. Divide mussels among serving dishes or transfer to a large serving bowl. Season sauce with salt and pepper and pour over mussels. Serve with a mixed greens salad and a crusty bread for soaking up the sauce. A nice, chilled, crisp white wine would go well with this too.