Recently, my husband signed up for the monthly beer club at The Rare Barrel, a local outfit specializing in sour beer. This style of beer is crafted to maximize the acidic tang of wild fermentation–the same process that makes sauerkraut taste sour–while minimizing bitterness. The result is a brew that is light, tangy, and easy to drink. Even I, an avowed beer-hater, like this stuff. So when Sam suggested having a few friends over to help us finish this month’s beer-stash, my thoughts immediately turned to cooking with it. Specifically, mussels.
Of all the ways to cook mussels at home, it’s hard to beat simply steaming them in some flavorful liquid. For most of my mussel-eating life, that meant white wine with lots of garlic. But that’s far from the only way to go. I suspected that the light, acidic qualities of a sour beer would make it an ideal swap for dry white wine when steaming shellfish. And I was right.
Instead of the usual garlic saute, I started by sweating diced leek tops and fennel in garlic-infused oil. I threw in some chile flakes, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf, then added the beer. After steaming the mussels open in their beer-y sauna, I scooped them out of the pot and finished the broth with a few chunks of butter for richness and heft, plus a dollop of mustard for spice. (I left the aromatics in, but you could strain them out of the broth if you prefer, since both leek tops and fennel bulbs can be tough.) Then I poured the enriched broth over the mussels, added a handful of chopped parsley, and set the bowl on the table next to a loaf of spelt bread–sourdough, natch.
Although I used sour beer here, this is really a “mussels steamed with some sort of booze” recipe. If you’re a beer drinker, any good-quality ale will do. If you don’t do beer, try hard cider (preferably on the dry side) or good old white wine. And, honestly, “good-quality” is in the taste buds of the beholder. If you like it enough to drink it, go ahead and cook with it!
Mussels Steamed with Sour Beer (serves 2 as an entree, or 4 as an appetizer)
Note: Buy the mussels the day you want to cook them. If you need to hold them for a couple hours before cooking, place them in a shallow dish lined with a damp paper towel and refrigerate. Wait to rinse and debeard them until right before you cook them.
2 lb farmed mussels
Inner green tops from 1 large leek, diced (discard the tough outer leaves)
1/2 small fennel bulb, finely diced
2 tbsp olive oil or garlic-infused oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp crushed red chile flakes, or to taste
3/4 cup sour beer (see blog post)
To finish the sauce:
3 tbsp cold unsalted butter
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Green tops from 2 scallions, thinly sliced
Crusty bread (preferably sourdough), for serving
Inspect the mussels, and discard any with cracked or broken shells. If any mussels are slightly open, give them a gentle tap; if they don’t close within a few seconds, throw them out. Rinse the mussels under cold running water, and scrub with a cloth or a stiff brush to remove any lingering grit or dirt. If any of the mussels have their hairy beards still attached, pull them out–you may need to use a kitchen towel to help you grip.
In a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add leek tops and fennel, plus a large pinch of salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have collapsed and softened. Add thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and chile flakes, and stir them around in the oil for about 30 seconds.
Increase the heat to medium. Add beer to the pot and bring to a boil. Add the mussels and immediately cover the pot. Let the mussels steam for 5-10 minutes; every few minutes, uncover the pot and use tongs or a skimmer to transfer open mussels to a large serving bowl (or individual bowls, if you’re fancy). If any mussels haven’t opened after 10 minutes, remove them from the pot and throw them away.
Once all of the mussels are removed from the pot, remove and discard the thyme stems and bay leaf. Add butter and mustard, stirring constantly until the butter is melted and the broth is smooth and slightly thickened. Taste the broth and season with salt as needed–it probably won’t need much.
Pour the finished broth over the mussels (you can strain out the aromatics first, if you prefer). Sprinkle over the parsley, and give the mussels a stir. Serve immediately, with a bowl to collect shells and plenty of bread for mopping up the broth.