Barton Seaver's Yuletide Mussel Stew
Our new holiday tradition: simplicity. This fresh, one-pot mussel dinner delivers.
In my kitchen around the holidays, space is at a premium. The sounds of Charles Brown and Otis Redding fill the room where friends and family are gathered, many helping with the cooking, others just hanging out. Because my family tends to share the cooking duties, there's quite a bit of jockeying for access to the stove. (Trying to find a free square inch in the oven is a futile effort.) With spice-scented pies, mulled bourbon or wine, and heady aromas of slow roasts in the air, I like to diversify the traditional holiday menu with my simple, one-pot mussel stew.
Mussels are a favorite in my house year-round, but they're at peak flavor in the winter, with beautiful obsidian-blue shells holding the richly orange meat and a briny liquor that infuses the entire dish. Though also available wild, the vast majority of mussels are sustainably farmed and quite affordable. They're not only easy to prepare—requiring just a simple scrub and removal of the "beard," thin threads that attach the mussel to rocks and ropes—but they also have the added benefit of forcing us to slow down, as we remove each bite from its shell, allowing the time to sit and truly enjoy a respite from the chaotic season.
Many cooks are most familiar with mussels steamed in wine and aromatics, served with nothing more than crusty bread or French fries. But mussels can also star beautifully in more complex, richly flavored dishes. This recipe borrows from the great tradition of convenient, one-pot seafood stews, such as the bouillabaisse of Marseille, or cioppino from San Francisco.
These warming, hearty dishes are ideal for holiday entertaining, because they can be made ahead of guests' arrival and only improve as the flavors come together. Here, the mussels find company with tons of vegetables—fennel, onion, butternut squash—making this a nourishing meal, too. I like to pair the stew with wine. (Find my three favorites for winter dishes on the next page.) Try this dish and you'll see: The aromas of roasted garlic, ginger, lemon, and cloves add not only comfort to your holiday, but also a seasonal potpourri that's just as welcome as the scent of balsam and a roaring fire.
Flexing Your Mussels
Before cooking mussels, rinse them under cold running water to remove any grit. If the mussels have beards, or thin threads attached to the shell, pinch them between your thumb and index finger, and pull them away to remove. Discard mussels with broken shells. Gently tap any open mussels—if they close, they are fine to use; if they remain open, discard.
What to Drink
Iron Horse 2010 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs
$$$ (Green Valley, CA; $50)
What are holidays without bubbles? This sparkler pairs especially well with seafood, and the company gives back by donating $4 for every bottle sold to the National Geographic Ocean Initiative.
Willakenzie Estate 2012 Gamay Noir
$$ (Willamette Valley, OR; $26)
Light, acidic, and floral, this wine is easy to drink and remarkably friendly with seafood.
L'ecole No. 41 2012 Chenin Blanc
$ (Columbia Valley, WA; $15)
This rich and luxurious wine, scented with hints of tropical fruit, retains a fresh and lively quality to pair with the cold-weather flavors of this recipe.
Barton Seaver is a chef, sustainable seafood expert, and National Geographic Explorer, and the author of several books, including For Cod and Country.