Mussels are wonderful creatures, and I especially love to cook with ones harvested from the clean waters surrounding Prince Edward Island. (And this time of year there’s a bonus: the colder water makes the mussels sweeter and plumper.) They are line-grown mussels, and come to the consumer clean and of a uniform size, which makes them a pleasure to cook. I picked up a bag this past weekend, and decided to make mussels the star of Sunday dinner.
I often simply steam mussels in white wine and shallots and serve them in a bowl, and this method of preparation is simple and results in something delicious (and adaptable: you can use any number of steaming liquids, including ouzo, beer, or water). But this time, I had another thing on my mind, involving cream and onions and shallots and thyme. It’s called Billi Bi, and you’re going to want to make this.
You’ll need mussels, of course. Start with two pounds, which is the amount this recipe is based on. (I have been happy with the ones I’m buying at the H-E-B on Buffalo Speedway; they are from Canadian Cove, a company that knows what it’s doing.) Fresh mussels should smell clean, and their shells should be moist. Keep them in the coldest part of your refrigerator, covered by a damp towel. Try to use them on the day they are bought.
Craig Claiborne shared this recipe with his readers years ago in The New York Times, and it is a classic, a simple and delicious classic (I alter the amount of some of the ingredients called for, but only slightly). Here’s your shopping list:
2 pounds of mussels
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 small white onions, peeled and quartered
4 sprigs parsley
Black (or white) pepper
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups heavy cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
I love cooking Billi Bi, because the ingredients are honest and earthy, and the work involved is satisfying. Rinse the mussels under running water and, if necessary, remove any beards (fibers used by the creatures to cling onto surfaces). Place the bivalves in a Dutch oven, then add the shallots, onions, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne, wine, butter, bay leaf, and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook for another 8 to 10 minutes, or until mussels have opened.
Strain the mixture through a colander that you’ve lined with cheesecloth; you are making the base for the soup. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the mussels and set them aside in a bowl. Discard the shells and the aromatics, and don’t use any mussels that did not open.
Pour the liquid into a small saucepan and add the cream. Bring almost to the boil, then remove from heat. Let cool for a few minutes, then add the egg yolk and stir. Return to heat and let the soup thicken. Do not boil.
You’ll want to taste the soup now, and season to your liking. I added more salt and pepper, plus a splash of sherry.
To serve, scatter some mussels in the center of a large bowl and ladle the soup over them. Once you sprinkle some chopped parsley over the Billi Bi, you can eat. Serve with a toasted (or grilled) and buttered baguette and a nice Muscadet.