FRANCE and ITALY do the hustle with fresh cultured MUSSELS.
Your taste buds will be dancing on your palate just as ours did twice.

A rustic culinary sophistication was achieved by a few unexpected twists.
Flavours from two of my favourite cuisines unite in this amazing seafood dish.

The lulling mussels were doing the rumba with...
fennel, red pepper and sweet onion.
They were waltzed into creamy Roquefort cheese...
while the essence of anise liquor...
ultimately gathered all partners throughout the dancing skillet.
When last vacationing at the seaside of the French Riviera.
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, French Riviera

...Hubby and I indulged in an unforgettable feast.
 It revolved around a satiating Mussel dish...
infused in a creamy broth evoking the scent of mild liquorice.

I had vowed then, that I was going to find out more about this specialty
and replicate this happy dance our palates were experiencing.

After a little prodding...the restaurant's owner had...
kindly divulged at least some of the key ingredients.
Blended with some heavy cooking cream...
a Roquefort cheese offered the tangy creaminess...
while the subtle anise undertone was highlighted by a Pernod liquor.

He also shared that this recipe was quite unique to the French parts of Normandy.
This dish was loosely referred to as “les Moules à la crème Normande”.
Of course, there were nuances of slightly undetectable ingredients...
which were tightly held by the recipe passed on from his 'Mamma'.
With keen observation, I thought it to be rude to continue...
poking questions at this very reserved gentleman.
Hence, enough said...my palate was going to decipher the rest ;o)

After all, it’s challenges like these which make me tick.
This is also why my loving Hubby counts on this particular characteristic.

As he always reminds me...
he does live to eat and not the other way around.
Isn’t he the practical one?!?
His great mind is one of the reasons I fell in love with him and why...
I find myself so much in the kitchen as opposed to being at the spa!!!.

If anyone was not able to translate the quote on the bib from the intro photo...
“ Non mangio per vivere.
Vivo per Mangiare”
...it is exactly my Hubby’s philosophy...
he LIVES to EAT.
The restaurant’s owner was highly influenced by his Mamma’s cooking just as...
I’ve been predisposed by some lesser appreciated memories from my childhood.
It's so strange that today I actually really enjoy eating mussels.
This was completely opposite to how I felt about them when I was an older child.
When we vacationed in Italy during most of our summers...
my Mom and I used to cringe at the sight of my Father bringing...
a huge bag of these freshly caught wild molluscs from the sea.
Every time he decided to drown us with these useless time wasters...
real vacation seemed like a figment of my imagination.
To think that my friends back home were envying me for our foreign holidays...Hah!
While I was cleaning, scraping and whining about it...
they were playing and ‘chowing’ down on a Big Mac and fries. LOL

I always felt that there had to be a better way to enjoy life and the preparation of food.

Thankfully, I realized much later, with the advent of the...
much cleaner, cultured * (cultivated) mussels...
my disdain for these onyx bodied shells would slowly disappear.

At first, I made sure to eat them everywhere else other than at my home.
There was no way I was going to re-live my mild childhood calamities.

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, French Riviera

I did however, often find myself craving mussel dishes at some refined eateries.
Belgian and French bistros served up excellent ‘Moules et frites‘ meals which I devoured.
Later, through travels, I was captivated by my very first ‘Bouillabaisse’ dish...
offered by a generous Inn keeper in Marseille who invited me at her family‘s table.
This was quite a cherished memory, especially being treated to such a personal invite.

Finally...how can I speak of the mollusc, without, of course, mentioning how...
the Italians have mastered the unforgettable combo of Pasta and mussels.
I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying this pasta dish at several occasions...
and will one day share my creations in later posts for sure ;o)
Therefore...all this to say...
I guess cutting and scraping my hands cleaning...
those uncultivated mussels...had only scarred me temporarily.
So as the saying goes...maybe for some things...
"Time can heal some wounds".

Back to the more present time in my culinary journey.
Once, back from France...
I took out my notes concerning a few recipes I wanted to look into.
Of course, the Normandy mussel specialty was prime for my magic in the kitchen.
It was, after all, the beginning of the mussel season in our parts of Quebec.

Which brings me to how I got educated about the mollusc in the first place.
I'll never forget the very easy indicator my fish monger had given me...
to remember when I should be purchasing this shellfish:
He informed me that in our colder climates...
the in-season for tasty and meaty mussels are during the months...
that finished with 'bre' in French and for English, ending in 'ber'.
Thus, September to December would be a great time to feast on these.
Personally, I wait at least until October when the meaty part is substantial.

By the way...did you ever wonder why some meat shows different colours?
Well...apparently....the pale white meat indicates a male mussel...
while the females are an orange rust colour.
Is that a cool trivia to bring up on a first date or what?
When I looked up the mussels’ healthty nutritional benefits...I gladly found out:
. They are actually low in cholesterol as well as in low in fat.
. Mussels are also rich in minerals and protein.
. They have a good dose of vitamin B12, selenium and also a little bit of folate and zinc.
Before I went ahead to concoct a similar Mussel Roquefort dish...
I went digging around for what was circulating on...
the original specialty from Normandy, France.
Specifically, I noticed too much heavy cream was used with the already rich Roquefort.
I personally did not think the cream was necessary for this dish to be spectacular.
After all...I needed to leave some space for one of my...
favourite desserts of crème brûlée...n'est-ce-pas?

I managed to mimic the heavy cream and achieved great results with...
low-fat milk plus...arrowroot flour***
...which is a natural thickener I use often to replace cornstarch in my preparations.
I realize that many of you may be sceptical at this point.
However, before dismissing this cooking substitute which lessens the...
guilt of otherwise slightly unhealthy choices; please give it a try.
I promise, you’ll be amazed at how this will pleasantly surprise you.

Since, I was already enroute to making a few changes...
I figured I’d also want to place my personal Italian signature.
Therefore, my favourite Italian celery, ‘finocchio‘, the aromatic fennel bulb...
was to accompany a sweet spanish onion and red bell pepper.
Then, of course...these were going to be paired...
perfectly with the anise flavoured liquor of Sambuca.

Since I only drink robust liquors on occasion...
I make sure to make great use of the bottles I have at my disposition.
This is one way I enjoy giving special flavours and essences to my dishes.
Hence, the reason you see many of my creations enhanced with exquisite liquors ;o)

Let’s get cooking...

serves as entrée for 4 persons OR main meal for 2 persons
[depending on size...a bag (2 lbs. (1kg)...yields between 45-50 mussels]

(American / Metric measures)

Click HERE for a PRINTER version

. 1 bag [2 lbs. (1kg)] fresh water cultured Mussels*
. 2 tbsps. each of olive oil and butter
. 1 large Spanish onion, thinly sliced 
. 1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
. a fennel bulb (interior bulb) thinly sliced
. 1 tsp. (5ml) each of sea salt as well as garlic powder
. pinch of ‘piment d’espelette’
(cayenne or finely ground chili pepper is fine also)
. 1/4 tsp. (5ml) each of these dried herbs:
ground rosemary, basil, marjoram and tarragon
. 1 tsp. (5ml) ‘fleur d'ail’ (or roasted garlic)

. 1/4 cup (60ml) Sambuca liquor (any anise based liquor is suitable)

. 1 tbsp. (15ml) arrowroot flour*** (cornstarch is fine)
. 1 cup low fat milk (or up to 10% cooking cream)
. 1/4 cup (60g) Roquefort cheese**

* Cultured Mussels as opposed to the wilder picked mollusc...these mussels have very little grit and barnacles. They are sweeter, tender and plumper which usually yields a meatier flesh.
If not planning on cooking the shellfish on the same day of purchase...store them at the back of the refrigerator by keeping them moist in a bowl covered with a damp cloth. Do not place them in water or in an air-tight container. It’s highly suggested to cook them in the very short term or at least respecting the dates given to you by the fish monger.

** Roquefort cheese is considered by many to be the "King of cheeses". This very specialized pungent cheese is created only from the milk of sheep especially bred for the Roquefort variety of blue type cheeses. The aging process takes place in particular damp aired limestone caverns found under the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
. There are no real substitutes for this unique cheese...however, if absolutely necessary...here are some acceptable alternatives you can select from the families of Blues, Stiltons or Gorgonzola cheeses.  Note: It's best to get your cheese monger to guide you concerning the specific the dish you're making.

*** Arrowroot flour is an edible starch and a great gelatine substitute also.
This flour is derived from the roots of the West Indian plant known as the Maranta Arundinacea.
It is a natural white powdered substitute that can be used as a thickening agent just as cornstarch is so commonly used. The flavour arrowroot flour imparts is fairly tasteless and neutral.   Important note: To avoid a ‘slimy’ consistency...it is best to add the arrowroot thickened dairy liquid towards the very end of the meal preparation.
Buying tip:  Since this special product is more expensive than cornstarch you should be aware of the following:  Research has shown that arrowroot is often adulterated with potato starch, that affects all the benefits of arrowroot vs. cornstarch. To identify pure arrowroot, you should observe its texture, which is fine, light, pure white, and odourless. ref.:

1. In a large cleaned bin or sink...place mussels within cold water and a tablespoon of salt.  Let them soak temporarily.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the thinly sliced onion.  Afterwards, in a very large deep skillet or pot...warm the olive oil and butter on medium heat.  Sauté the onions well.  Lower the heat slightly and cover the skillet for about 15 minutes for the caramelization to take place.
3. Back to continuing to prepare the mussels: If there are any visible hairy tufts (beards)...snip them off with a scissor.  Note: apparently, tearing them off may damage the interior meaty part.  Important: When mussels seem opened...give them a good finger tap to see if they respond by closing back up.  If this doesn't happen, it is important to discard these along with any other cracked shelled ones because they are no longer alive.  Lightly scrub and rinse the shells under cool running water and place them in a strainer over a bowl of very cold water or ice cubes.  They have to remain cold at all times!
4. Back to the cutting of the red pepper and fennel bulb.  Once, thinly sliced...add them to the caramelized onions and continue cooking on Medium heat until tender.  The salt, garlic(s) and dried herbs should be added now.
5. At this point...pour the Sambuca liquor over the vegetables and let alcohol evaporate for about 1 minute.
6. While the vegetables continue cooking...prepare the creamy cheese mix: In a small bowl, pour a little bit of milk to the arrowroot flour and whisk away the lumps.   Add to this, the chunked Roquefort cheese and continue mixing while adding the rest of the milk.  Set aside.
7. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the creamy cheese mix to the vegetables.
8. Once the cheese mix comes up to a bare boil...dump all the mussels at once.  Give them a good quick stir to blend them in properly.
9. Cover the skillet tightly with lid for about 3 minutes.  Afterwards, uncover and give the mussels another quick stir so that the creamy mix integrates itself uniformly.  Cover again to cook another 4 minutes until they are all well steamed, opened and slightly loosened from their shells.
10. Be careful not to overcook the mussels because they will disappoint since they will become tough and somewhat dry.  Important: When serving...discard any mussels which have not opened.  
11. Mussels cooked this way are best served in deep dishes along with crusty bread for dunking into that creamy smooth broth.
. Also, don't forget to place a big bowl to easily discard those empty shells as you're delighting over those meaty mussels ;o) 

Although a few incredibly appetizing mussel recipes have been eaten at our table...
this particular dish turned out to be a delicacy like no other I've had...
the pleasure of concocting with the mollusc.
Therefore, there still is some time to try making these yourself...you won't regret it.

Flavourful wishes,

Comments ... ??? ... or suggestions ... write me :o)
Claudia at: foodessa [at] gmail [dot] com

Go HERE for more SAVOURY creations.

Please take note on how I bake and cook...
Here’s a 101 of sorts to make sure that there are no disappointments when trying my creations.  
Also...just so you know...feel free to increase the salt and sweet factor since I'm not high on either of them ;o)

. Use DRY cup measurements for...you guessed it...all DRY ingredients.
Anything DRY gets measured by spooning the overfilled ingredient (never shake the cup) and then level off with a flat edged tool.  Exception...Brown sugar should be packed in and leveled.
. Use LIQUID cup measurements for...all LIQUIDS that cannot be leveled like for example butter, yogurt...etc.  Measure the liquids at eye level to avoid overdoing what the recipe truly needs.
OVENS are unfortunately not created equal.  Mine is so old that it has reached many degrees off it's norm.  It's really worth investing a few dollars to test yours with an appropriate oven thermometer.  You'd be surprised how many ovens I've heard about not being where they should have been.  Before you lose any more ingredients and much time preparing a new recipe...run to the store...you'll thank me later. 

Other FISH and SEAFOOD recipes that may inspire you:
- BASA fish fillet stuffed Pindjur rolls
- Calamari (Squid...cuttlefish) Olive Crimini Tomato Linguini
- FISH stuffed FILLET rolls with goat CHEESE roasted TOMATO
- SEAFOOD Splurge with ARTICHOKE Salad