Classic steamed mussels in white wine, with a smokey bacon and fennel twist.
It starts with Halloween. All that left over Trick-or-Treat candy I swear I’ll throw out, and cookies in shapes of arched cats and witches hats that were so fun to make. Before I know it, Thanksgiving arrives with stuffing, sweet potato casseroles, and at least two kinds of pies. And then the ramp up to Christmas with all the holiday parties, and girls lunches and dinners. By the time my body finally waddles into Christmas, I’m practically mainlining sugar and buying butter by the case from Costco.
OK, a bit of an exaggeration. But only a bit. What’s true is that by the time I get to Christmas Day with New Years in my sights, I crave simple fare. Something light and healthy, and easy to make. If you’re open to a non-vegetarian dinner, a dinner of steam mussels fits the bill perfectly; and if you’re staying in on New Year’s Eve, it offers up the elegance you might be looking for to welcome the New Year in.
There’s some prepping to the dish – most of which can be done in advance, but you can easily eliminate some of the ingredients to simplify it to its bare essentials of mussels, white wine, and shallots. But trust me, going to just a little more effort to add the smoky bacon, onion and fennel are worth it.
A Few Entertaining Notes:
If you’re making this for a dinner party and want to make this ahead:
Steam the mussels separately in the wine; sauté the bacon and make the vegetable base.
Store everything in the refrigerator separately until 30 minutes before serving.
Warm up the vegetable base to a gentle simmer, and add the mussels in their shells. Cover and simmer for two minutes, and serve.
A Few Cooking Notes:
For a main dish, allow for one pound of mussels per person. This will provide some extra mussels in case they don’t all open.
When prepping mussels, remove any beards before cooking. This is the clump of wiry hair that peeps through the opening. For stubborn ones, you can use pliers or a knife. Discard any mussels with broken shells. Store over ice in the refrigerator, but use them within a day of purchasing.
Following the steaming process, discard any mussels that don’t open.
Don’t use an oaky white wine for this dish. Light, fruity wines are best – I typically use a Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc.
If you prefer not to use bacon, adding a dried chipotle pepper is a nice smokey addition to the broth during cooking.
Bacon lardons are 1/4″ slices of bacon across the width of each slice. I typically stack the bacon slices on top of each other and slice them that way. Each lardon will be approximately 1/4″ X 1 1/2″ depending on the width of the bacon.
Smoked bacon will make a huge difference in this dish – I urge you not to use regular bacon.
Steamed Mussels in White Wine with Fennel
- 4 pounds mussels
- 1/2 bottle white wine (I used a Sauvignon Blanc)
- 6 pieces smoked bacon, sliced into lardons
- 2 poblano chiles (optional)
- 2 yellow onions
- 1 leek
- 4 shallots
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 1 large head of fennel
- 1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
- 1 teaspoon dried herbs de Provence
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
- Italian parsley
Scrub the mussels and remove any beards. Add the wine to a pot large enough to accommodate the mussels, and bring to a low simmer over medium-high heat. Add the mussels. It's fine for them to be piled on each other up to two or three layers, but more than that risks mussel shell breakage and may prevent the shells from fully opening. Cover with a lid.
Steam for 10 minutes or until all mussels have opened. Remove the mussels and refrigerate until ready to add them to the vegetable broth at the end.
Reserve wine / mussel broth.
Fry the bacon in a pot large enough to accommodate the entire dish, until just getting crispy while you prep the vegetables. For prepping: 1) broil the chiles until well darkened. Place in a bag for 10 minutes. Peel, chop of the stems, and slice open to remove the seeds. Coarsely chop. 2) Dice the onions into 1/4" pieces. 3) Slice off the root and the dark green tops off of the leek; cut in half lengthwise. Feather the layers of the leek open under cold running water to remove any sand or mud. Thinly slice across the width of the each half. 4) Thinly slice each shallot, and coarsely chop a couple of times. 5) Halve the cherry tomatoes. 6) Thinly slice the fennel. I do this on a mandolin on the thinnest setting. A potato peeler or sharp knife can be effective too. Fennel takes a while to soften even slightly, so the thinner, the better.
When the bacon is ready, add all of the prepped vegetables to the pot. Toss in the bacon grease and simmer for 20 minutes, or until everything except the fennel is softened.
Add the reserved wine - mussel broth, the clam juice, herbs and salt and pepper, and bring back to a simmer. Simmer for 3 - 4 minutes and add the mussels back in. Cover the pot, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the mussels are warm.
Serve sprinkled with a little Italian parsley and a side of crusty bread for dipping in the the broth.