My grandmother is the most magical storyteller. On evenings when my sister and I would spend the night at her house we had a little routine that never seemed to vary: She’d feed us a dinner of something classically Cajun like crispy fried catfish or oyster soup before bribing us to go bed with five Hershey Kisses, which she affectionately calls “silv-uh bells.” There, we’d crawl into our respective beds, where I’d inhale all five of my silver bells in one greedy chomp while my sister would delicately unwrap and savor each one, and together we’d be lulled to sleep with stories from our grandmother’s past.
There were memories of buttery biscuits billowing with steam in her childhood kitchen on the plantation. There were tales about working as one of the only women on the legendary Great Chefs television show. And, having visited all seven continents, there were, of course, countless stories of food and travel.
But of all the tales she told, the one that my stomach rumble and my mind churn was of her first trip to Belgium where she had her first experience with moules frites while sitting on an outdoor patio sipping a glass of crisp white wine. She described the way the bivalves soaked up the garlic and wine broth and the burst of excitement that came along with dipping crispy frites into its hot, soupy liquid. Stomach grumbling – despite having just eaten dinner – I’d lie awake and wonder why we were always having gumbo and chicken when we could be having whatever that delicious sounding thing was.
“Moules frites, moules frites, moules frites,” I’d quietly chant as the foreign words tumbled on my tongue.
As I got older and came across moules frites in restaurants I began to understand just what she was so excited about. (It didn’t hurt that by then I’d begun to develop a relationship with wine too.) There was nothing quite like the satisfaction of scooping fleshy meat from the wide-open, delicate black shells and then slurping up the leftover broth with crispy, twice-fried potatoes.
In my early twenties, I found myself cooking classic mussels for my friends, most of us too broke to afford much at the time and mussels offered an inexpensive way to feel like we were capable of hosting sophisticated dinner parties like “real adults.” But the frites component intimidated me back then – a few bad experiences with a fryer will do that to a person – so I’d opt to serve the steaming mussels with a crusty baguette instead. In fact, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I took a stab at making my own frites. And I was amazed at just how simple it really was – just peel, cut, soak, fry, and fry again.
As my adventures with food and cooking have developed, my love of steamed mussels has expanded beyond the classic white wine, garlic, and herbs version that my grandmother lulled me to sleep with so long ago. The broth you cook mussels in is malleable and can easily adapt to suit your mood—and what you’re drinking. For example, you can make a green curry broth with eggplant and cilantro, or beer broth with spicy choirzo and peppers. But my favorite lately is a bold seafood and sherry broth inspired by classic Moroccan cooking. It’s made with shallots, garlic and a rainbow of warm spices (cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger) and is garnished with green mint. Because cooking with even just a touch of alcohol can boost the aromatics of a dish, I’ve incorporated sherry in this savory recipe to bring a sweet smokiness to the overall dish while also elevating the shallot, garlic, and spices.
Later in life, when she traveled again to Nova Scotia, my grandmother – whose real name is Mary Lou – was given a new name: “Mary Mussel.” I have a feeling, with this recipe in my cooking arsenal, I might not be too far behind her—I’ve made it half a dozen times in the last month. Though I think we can all agree, “Brooke Mussel” doesn’t have nearly as nice of a ring to it.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 shallots, chopped finely
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped roughly
- ½ teaspoon of saffron threads
- ⅛ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon of ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon of ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon of ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon of ground paprika
- ½ teaspoon of kosher salt
- ½ cup of dry sherry
- 1 ½ cups of seafood stock
- 2 teaspoons of harissa, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1 pound of live mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- mint, for garnish
- 3 medium sized Russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into long finger-width strips (or smaller, depending on preferences)
- canola oil (or other neutral-tasting oil), I used about 50 ounces
- Salt, to taste
- Heat olive oil in a large pot/wok/saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until they begin to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add saffron threads, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, paprika, and salt, increase heat to medium-high, and cook for about 30 seconds.
- Add sherry to the pan and continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Once nearly all of the sherry liquid has cooked down, add seafood stock, harissa, butter, and stir. Reduce heat to medium, add mussels, cover with a tight fitting lid, and continue to simmer until all of the mussels have opened, about 4-5 minutes.
- Spoon mussels and broth into bowls, discarding any unopened mussels. Garnish with mint and additional harissa, if desired, and serve with a crusty baguette or fresh frites.
- Rinse your potatoes in a bowl filled with cold water, changing the water several times. Lay them out on paper towels and pat dry, doing your best to get as much moisture out of them as possible.
- Fill a fryer or a dutch oven with canola oil, at least 2-3 inches high. Heat over medium heat until oil reaches 300-325 degrees F. Add 1-2 heaping handfuls of the potatoes and cook until you notice them just beginning to turn color on the edges and the texture starts to look slightly more puffy, about 5-7 minutes. It’s important to make sure the oil temperature is right—too low and the fries will absorb too much oil; too high and they’ll cook unevenly. Also, the potatoes will bubble and pop roughly in the hot oil, so be careful while handling. Work in batches while you fry so that the potatoes aren’t over crowded. If you add too many at a time, the temperature of the oil will drop too quickly and your frites will turn out too oily. Remove the first fried potatoes with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels to drain.
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
- Once you’re ready for the second fry, increase the heat to medium-high until it reaches approximately 350-375 degrees. Add your first fried potatoes back into the now very hot oil, one to two handfuls at a time, and fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes. Again, work in batches here and be sure not to overcrowd the pan. When they’ve turned a deep golden color, remove with a slotted spoon and lie either on paper towels or a wire rack to drain. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
- If you’re too engrossed in cooking the frites to worry about the mussels, spread the finished frites out onto a wire wrack and place in the preheated oven for up to 30 minutes while you prepare the mussels.