Monday, May 08, 2006

Mussels with Fennel and Creme Fraiche Linguini


Mussels. Two dollars a pound for good taste and good entertainment. I first learned to eat mussels under the tutelage of my elegant French roommate. In Bretagne, she showed me the trick of finding one perfect shell to use as a tool to pick the meat out of the others, like tiny pincers. And back home in the good old U S of A, she dragged me to Belgian pubs to introduce me to the various delicious broths that mussels can be sauced with. Mussels and their sauces are relatively easy, but I find the assembly process a lesson in the importance of proper order of operations. I've written the recipe below in real time, so that you can get a sense of how to make all the pieces come together at once. Very hot mussels are much better than lukewarm. I recommend preparing a vinegary salad before you get started, and having a chunk of bread on hand for sopping.

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Mussels with Fennel and Creme Fraiche Linguini

Cut from their mesh bag:
2 pounds of mussels

Pick them over for broken shells or wide open mussels. Place them in a colander and run very cold water over them while you chop veggies, etc. In most recipes, this is the place where you would be instructed to scrub the shells and cut away the "beards," but I find that the mussels in grocery stores these days have been processed in this way already.

Pare, core and slice very finely, reserving the parings and green tops:
2 bulbs fresh fennel

Roughly chop:
2-3 large sweet onions

In a large skillet, warm over medium heat:
2 Tablespoons butter

When the butter bubbles, add the fennel and onion. Cook gently until onion and fennel are very soft and beginning to caramelize.

Meanwhile, in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, add:
2/3 bottle white wine (a glug of pernod probably wouldn't hurt here, if you have some)
Fennel parings and tops
Bring to a simmer and let bubble while you complete other steps.

Fill a large pot with salted water for pasta. When the water has boiled, add:
1 pound linguini or other long strand pasta

Once the pasta is underway, bring the wine to a boil and add the mussels. Cover tightly. Don't peek, but occasionally give the pot a shake. After 3 minutes, check to see it the mussels have opened. If so, fish them out with a slotted spoon, discard the remaining fennel bits, and keep them warm under an inverted bowl. Leave the wine to reduce on a high boil.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it (be sure to rinse the colander first) and dump it into the pan with the onions and fennel. Add the reduced wine and turn up the heat. Watch as the pasta drinks up the salty, fennel-flavored wine. Then reduce the heat, stir in:
2-3 Tablespoons creme fraiche
Lots of ground black pepper

Serve immediately, with mussels placed on top and lemon juice generously sprinkled over the whole plate.

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