As seafood goes, mussels have to be one of the simplest things to cook. They're quick to prepare, almost always delicious and take well to a wide variety of flavors. Mussels like booze--wine, beer, any anise-flavored liquor, even Calvados. They pair well with a variety of herbs and love a rich foil, like butter. Browned butter. Lots of butter. Or cream, coconut milk or rich, triple-crème cheeses like Camembert. Basically, they're a very friendly mollusk, willing to hang out and steam in a pan with just about anything. So why is it that moules marinières--mussels in the style of the miller's wife, to translate directly--is so ubiquitous? It's a wonderful dish, to be sure--butter, white wine, shallots, garlic and parsley--but doesn't begin to explore the diversity of flavors the shellfish can match up with.
In Marseille, where the food is full of tomatoes and brightly flavored herbs and citrus, along with briny olives, mussels get a much different treatment than from the miller's wife, and its one that's become my favorite. Shallots, garlic and butter still make an appearance, but they're matched with tomatoes and fennel in a spicy both enriched not just with butter, but a good shot of olive oil too. I can't claim this to be an authentic version of mussels a la Marseillaise, but its definitely inspired by that port city's traditional recipe.
Mussels with Tomatoes and Fennel
2 pounds mussels
2 cups tomatoes (cherry, fresh, canned, whatever)
1 bulb fennel, sliced fronds reserved
2 large shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup white wine
5 sprigs thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
½ preserved lemon or the zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon butter
Salt to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Sauté the fennel bulb and shallots in about a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot with a lid, along with the bay leaf--if you don't have a fresh one, don't bother--and the whole thyme sprigs. Cook over a medium flame until everything softens up, then add in the tomatoes--drained of liquid if canned, halved if cherry, diced if larger. Season lightly--the mussels, like oysters, are somewhat salty--and cook until the tomatoes have released all of their juices, making a bit of a broth for the vegetables and herbs to simmer in.
While cooking the vegetables, scrub and de-beard the mussels, tossing any that are opened up. Those ones are dead already and will likely make you violently ill if you eat them.
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Add the wine, increase the flame to high and, once its all boiling, dump in the mussels and add the garlic. Cover with a lid and let the mussels steam open--they'll start popping open in just a matter of minutes. When the mussels have opened up scoop them out with a slotted spoon--sans broth and veggies--into a serving bowl. Check the seasoning and add red pepper flakes to taste, then whisk in the butter and another tablespoon of olive oil and throw in a handful of chopped fennel fronds and either the preserved lemon or lemon zest. Dump it all over the mussels and serve with bread.