Fishing for compliments: Simple, delicious Mussels in Tarragon Cream Sauce

by Terry B on May 6, 2009

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.


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolyn May 6, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Terry, those look beautiful. I love a meal that’s virtuous without seeming to be!

I wrote about eating with our hands this week, too. Must be something in the spring air.

Kate May 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm

I LOVE mussels. They are beautiful and so so yummy! Thanks for the great recipes, I am always looking for a new recipes for mussels. Thanks!

Megan May 6, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Yum! Looks delicious. I love mussels in cream sauce… with sausage and fennel too!

Toni May 6, 2009 at 6:29 pm

I love mussels, and I’m sooo with you on eating with my hands! The tarragon cream sauce sounds like a great variation on my usual theme – the oh-so-pedestrian white wine sauce.

mallory elise May 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm

beautiful photo. kudos kudos kudos :)

Terry B May 6, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Thanks, Carolyn. I just took a look at your hands-on pizza—also beautiful!

Kate—I must admit, I’m a fairly recent convert to mussels, but expect to see them turn up here again.

Megan—Okay, I totally want to be eating mussels with sausage and fennel right now, and I just finished lunch!

Toni—Not pedestrian, a classic.

Thanks for stopping by, mallory elise!

Nick Kindelsperger May 6, 2009 at 8:36 pm

The question is where did you buy the mussels? I’ve been looking all around the area and I can’t find them for affordable prices. I used to buy mussels all the time.

altadenahiker May 6, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Yay, heavy cream! Blue Kitchen is back!

(Nick, I just bought some beauties at Whole Foods. $5.99/pound, which is pretty much the going rate in SoCal.)

Terry B May 6, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Hi, Nick! We seriously need to get together for dinner as we threatened some time back. I got these at the sprawling, fascinating Korean hypermarket out in Niles, Super H Mart. But I’ve also seen them at Dirk’s Fish on Clybourn and Treasure Island. And as altadenahiker says, you can find them at Whole Foods.

Yeah, altadenahiker, I’ve been cooking and blogging a little too healthy these days. I think next week I’ll have to do some red meat or something, preferably grilled for extra carcinogens. But hey, it’s all about balance.

Laura May 7, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I have been craving mussels something fierce lately…you’ve inspired me to finally get back into making them with this recipe! I love it, as I am very pro cream and anti-tomato when it comes to my mussels. Your preparation fits the bill perfectly!

Allison Lemons May 7, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I love making mussels at home, and I’m always surprised at how inexpensive they are to buy. I feel the same way about squid. The sauce sounds delicious – definitely worthy of plenty of crusty bread to sop it all up. Thanks for the post!

Nishta May 8, 2009 at 3:39 am

yummy yum yummy yum. okay, you convinced me! I’ve been meaning to try these at home for a while now, instead of just relegating to “restaurant eats.” And I’m always happy to find new things to do with tarragon, who is sort of the red-headed stepchild of the herb family, no?

a good friend of mine makes an excellent Asian-style mussel “bath” with coconut milk and lemongrass…throw cooked noodles in the broth when you’re finished & slurp it up!

Ginger May 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm


These sound incredible! What do you think about serving a couple different “flavors” of mussels at a casual dinner party? I am just wondering if it would be too much? Thank you for sharing!! Great blog.

Randi May 8, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Thanks for posting this! My 17 yr old son LOVES mussels and he’s the only one in the house that does. I’ve never cooked mussels before and I would love to make them for him.

Terry B May 8, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Laura—Tomatoes do seem to be in more mussels recipes than not, don’t they? This is a nice, delicate change of pace.

You’re right, Allison—a nice, crusty bread is a crucial ingredient.

Wow, Nishta, your friend’s Asian take sounds delicious! We’re big fans of lemongrass.

Thanks, Ginger! If you’re doing them as a first course and make the two treatments very different, more than one mussels dish could be fun, I think. I saw one version in a tapas cookbook in which the steamed mussels were topped with a spicy mix [including chopped peppers, maybe, and some cheese?] and thrown under the broiler for a minute. Only the half of the shell with the mussel still attached, the other half discarded.

Randi—Your son has good taste!

Paz May 9, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Yum! Yum! Yum! I love mussels, which I first learned to eat in Brussels years ago when they were in season. I’m saving your recipe to try out soon. 😉

I also enjoyed reading about Panda. Thanks for sharing your story.


Scott May 9, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Hi Terry,

Great mussels recipe! Simple and I’m sure delicious. Great post too, thanks for the lesson on mussels :)

Ana May 9, 2009 at 11:47 pm

I have a big appetite for mussels, and if a big bowl is on the table, I devour them in seconds. (Yes, literally) I too love eating with my hands, and that is almost with any type of food. Your Tarragon Cream sounds interesting. I may be tempted to test this out one day. :)

Nick Kindelsperger May 11, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Absolutely! I’m actually looking at a condo in Logan Square tonight. So, perhaps I’ll be a little closer. But a dinner should be in order soon.

Nina Interlandi Bell May 19, 2009 at 10:43 pm


I made these last night for a couple of friends and they were delish. I had never made mussels before and so was a little afraid, but none of us died so they must have been OK. The only think I’ll work on next time is maybe how to keep them a bit warmer until the sauce is ready – I hate lukewarm food. Also, any tips on re-heating them the next day? Or does that not work with these guys?


Terry B May 20, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Paz, Scott and Ana—Thanks so much for stopping by.

Nick—Cool! Let’s take this discussion offline, as they say, but we’ll make it soon.

Nina—Sorry it took me a bit to get back to you. I was going to say you really can’t reheat mussels, but then I Googled leftover mussels. Boy, was I wrong—there were 106,000 results! Just a cursory glance at the recipes listed tells me you’ll find a great use for your leftovers. Also, I’m glad nobody died. That’s one reliable measure of success for any dinner party, I think.

ovi rahman August 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm

um… vermouth? this recipe sounds delicious, i dont know all the ingredients though but is there any wines involved? what type of cream is on the list? goodness i see why men are only chefs, you either are gifted or else you have to get a wife… i better start searching for a lady…

Terry B August 24, 2009 at 3:19 am

ovi rahman—Vermouth is actually a liquor made from wine, a kind of fortified wine. For the cream, you can use heavy or whipping cream found in most grocery stores. Regarding men cooking, there are plenty of amateurs like me who just do it because we love to. And like anything, there are skills and techniques you can learn that will help you develop your own. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find yourself a good woman too!

ovi rahman August 28, 2009 at 3:14 pm

he he, i expected a reply similar to yours, i had a pack of mussels at home, i decided to buy sour cream, im muslim, cant have alcohol, so decided to use the purple onions (unsure of a name there), boiled some shrimps and mussels first in lemon water, then fried the onions with olive oil and butter, everything went smooth until i felt like i hadnt put in enough sour cream… but still it tasted rather … creamy… im sure i could impress a date with the dish though, probably convince her to help me cook dinner next time around!

Terry B August 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Sounds delicious, ovi rahman!

ovi rahman August 29, 2009 at 6:33 pm

hah, thank you terry

Craig October 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I had this for dinner at a beach restaurant at Arcachon (west coast of France near Bordeaux) last summer. Amazingly good. I’m surprised the recipe is so simple but then that’s often the way with the really good combinations. Trying it myself tonight…

Terry B October 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Craig, this is one of the kinds of things the French do so well. A few well chosen ingredients, simply prepared. I hope you enjoy it!

Craig October 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Thanks Terry!

Mussels are one of the few meat/fish products that are still dirt cheap (at least here in Spain). I don’t really understand why, especially when you compare them to other crustaceans.

I guess they’re underrated. Here’s to that!

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