Mussels soup. Moules a la mariniere

Shellfish add a touch of luxury to any meal; mussels are a great treat and fortunately they do not cost a great deal-rather the reverse.

This dish comes from France's Atlantic coast and is excellent, providing that the mussels are fresh and thoroughly cleaned. Gritty mussels are unpleasant to eat, while sand left in the soup will collect in the liquor, turning it grey. Dead mussels can give you nasty food poisoning, so be sure that they are alive, by the means described here.

Serve moules a la mariniere as a meal-in-a-bowl for two people or a first course for four. For a meal-in-a-bowl buy 1 kg [2¼ Ib] of mussels per person if sold by weight, or 1 L [1 qt] if sold by volume.

If a large number of mussels in the fishmonger's tray are open or the shells are broken, do not buy them because these will be dead. (Live mussels usually keep their shells closed when they are out of water). When you get home, clean the mussels thoroughly. This is not difficult but it does take time. Keep the cleaned mussels immersed in a bowl of water until required for cooking, changing the water several times.

Eat mussels on the day of purchase whenever possible. If you have to leave them overnight, add some salt to the water. If wished you can add a little flour or oatmeal, too, to feed the mussels so they become plump and white. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and put in a cool place. After cooking, check again that your mussels are fresh. Heat should force the shells open so discard any that remain closed.

It is usual to remove half the shell from each mussel before serving. This is to reduce the amount of shell in the soup bowls. Put an empty plate in the centre of the table for the remaining halves of the shells as each person discards them. Serve in soup bowls with the mussels piled up, and provide spoons for the soup liquid. To eat the mussels, you pick the shell up in your fingers and tip the mussel into your mouth, discarding the empty shell. It is therefore a good idea to provide big napkins to wipe sticky fingers, and finger-bowls would also be useful.

Step-by-step Moules a la mariniere

- 2 kg [2 quarts] mussels
- 1 onion
- 1 shallot (or a second onion)
- 1 garlic clove
- 4 parsley stalks
- thyme sprig or dried thyme
- salt and pepper
- 40 g [1 ½ oz] butter
- 200 ml [7 fl oz] dry white wine or dry cider
- 75 ml [3 fl oz] water
- 15 ml [1 tablespoon] chopped parsley

Moules a la mariniere
1 Mussels should be absolutely fresh. Tap any open mussel. Discard it if it does not shut.

Moules a la mariniere
2 Using your hands pull away beards (any hanging seaweed gripped between the two shells).

Moules a la mariniere
3 Scrub the mussels under cold running water. Scrape away encrustations with a sharp knife.

Moules a la mariniere
4. Keep the mussels in a bowl of cold water until ready to cook. Change the water several times.

Moules a la mariniere
5 When ready to cook, drain the mussels. Chop the garlic, onion and shallot very finely.

Moules a la mariniere
6 Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add vegetables, cover and sweat for 10 minutes.

Moules a la mariniere
7 Tie parsley stalks and thyme with a piece of fine string. Or tie up dried thyme in butter muslin.

Moules a la mariniere
8 Add the herbs, wine or cider and water to the pan. Heat through slowly until almost boiling.

Moules a la mariniere
9 Add the mussels, cover and shake gently over fierce heat for 2 minutes to open the shells.

Moules a la mariniere
10 Reduce the heat and cook for a further 3 minutes to make sure the mussels are cooked.

Moules a la mariniere
11 Strain the liquor through a colander into a second saucepan. Discard the herbs.

Moules a la mariniere
12 Discard any mussels that are still tightly shut. Remove half a shell from each that is open.

Moules a la mariniere
13 Add the mussels on their half shells to the liquor in the pan. Reheat gently and season to taste.

Moules a la mariniere
14 Ladle soup into a tureen or bowls, heaping up the mussels in the centre. Garnish with parsley.
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