Mussels are a special occasion food — the best I’ve ever had was at the Auberge du Soleil hotel bar in Napa, California. The Auberge bar is perched on a hill, overlooking the entire valley. The cocktails were great, the mussels were spectacular. Sure, a big part of the experience was the view and the company, but the Staube pot filled with buttery broth, heady herbs and meaty mussels alongside a loaf of crusty bread certainly capped everything off.
But here’s a little secret — for all the fanfare, mussels are surprisingly easy to make. I’d certainly consider them one of the best bang-for-your-buck dishes out there. Trying to impress a girl (or guy) with a great dinner on a special occasion? You can’t go wrong with mussels and champagne. They’ll take you about 20-25 minutes, start to finish, and most of that time they’re just sitting in the pot, soaking up flavor.
Start by picking up a bag of mussels at the store — look for minimal cracked shells and a fresh scent that smells like the ocean. When you get them home, spot check them all as you drop them into a cool bowl of a water, throwing away any cracked or open (a little open is OK, a lot open is not) ones. Let them sit in the water for about 5-10 minutes to clean them off.
The broth is the fun part — Ina Garten has a complicated recipe that takes an hour and looks delicious. I, on the other hand, typically just wing it — the essential parts are butter, herbs, white wine and garlic. Preheat the oven to about 350 degrees for your bread. Start by adding about 2 Tbsp of butter (more is better) to a cast iron dutch oven or large saucepan. If you have about 1/2 of a finely chopped onion or a shallot, add it and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add 2 cloves of minced garlic and a sprig of fresh thyme (or about 1/2 tsp of dried thyme). If you’re feeling complicated, you can add in a teaspoon of flour at this stage and brown it a bit — it will thicken the final broth slightly. From here, add about 1/2 bottle of white wine (or less wine and some chicken broth or water if you prefer) and bring to a simmer. Pour out the cold water that your mussels are swimming in and add them to the pot — you don’t need to cover them all with liquid, as steam will cook the upper ones. Now is also a good time to put the bread in the oven.
Put a lid on the pot and cook the mussels for about 10 minutes, or until all of them are opened. Serve alongside the bread, and throw away any mussels that didn’t open. Crack a bottle of champagne, and you’re an instant hero.