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Mussels in Ghent-Style Wine Sauce

The best mussels I ever ate were in a big restaurant (I don’t remember the name, but it was in the former town hall) in the center of Ghent in Belgium, on the third day of our honeymoon. They were awash in what they called a wine sauce, although it seemed more like a cream sauce to me. It’s a Belgian classic, and no place in the world is more enthusiastic about mussels than the Belgians.

Mussels are very inexpensive, so buy plenty of them. The best are the black-shell mussels from Prince Edward Island in Canada. (I do not recommend the green-lipped mussels from New Zealand.) Mussels should be tightly closed; if the shell gapes a little, tap it. If it doesn’t close, pitch it. Although most of the mussels I’m finding in stores these days are pre-washed, scrubbing them and removing the byssus (“beard”) is essential. After they pop open in the pan, check them to see whether they need to be washed inside even a little more, as sometimes they do.

Mussels cook very quickly, and they shrivel up if you cook them too long. So get them out of there at the first sign that they’re heated through.

Mussels in Ghent-Style Wine Sauce

  • 8 dozen mussels
  • 1 onion, chopped coarsely
  • 1 Tbs. coarsely-cracked pepper
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • Stems from 1 bunch parsley
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • Sauce:
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 heaping Tbs. flour
  • 1 onion, pureed roughly
  • 2 cloves garlic, pureed roughly
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 tsp. saffron
  • 4 sprigs flat parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 green onions, chopped

1. After cleaning the mussels well, put them into a very large heavy pot with all the other non-sauce ingredients plus 1/4 cup of water. Put the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. After a couple of minutes, vigorously shake the pot to allow the unopened mussels to work their way to the bottom and open. Steam for about four minutes, or until all the mussels have opened.

2. Remove the mussels to a strainer over a bowl to catch all the juices. After they cool for three or four minutes, rinse the inside of the shells in a bowl of water, and remove any beards that may remain.

3. Add the collected mussel juices back to the pot and strain through the finest strainer you have or cheesecloth.

4. To begin the sauce, heat the butter in a large saucepan until it bubbles, and make a blond roux with the flour. Add the onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Cook for about two minutes–until the garlic is fragrant.

5. Add the mussel juices and, over medium-low heat, bring to a light boil and hold there for about eight minutes. Add the cream, saffron, and parsley, and return to a light boil for about three or four more minutes. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

6. Place a dozen mussels in a large broad-rimmed soup bowl, and ladle the sauce over them. Top with chopped green onions. Provide hot loaves of French bread, damp towels, and a bowl for the shells.

Serves one mussel fanatic or four normal people.

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  1. Mary on January 27, 2015

    Hoping this recipe comes close to La Crepe Nanou’s version, which I miss terribly. Used to frequent this restaurant when I lived in New Orleans, for three years. They also had the best salad dressing I ever had, simple, delicate and creamy. If you live here, you are so lucky – despite the heat, humidity, bugs and drunks, it was still a wonderful city simmering in its own juices. Thank you, Tom!

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