Cool Moules

Mussels have been getting in quite the pickle

I love moules frites as much as the next French fry-dipping, bistro-hopping lady.

But sometimes it's nice to remember there's more to mussels than a vehicle for sopping up all that nice buttery, shallot-white-wine broth.

I got hooked on the idea of pickled mussels the first time I went to Estela, Ignacio Mattos' small and reliably delightful restaurant on Houston Street in New York. His mussels escabeche on toast, which have been on the menu since day one, are kind of like the most mussel-y mussel you can imagine: briny, bright, creamy and tender and just the right amount of salty. Mattos quickly sautés them, then lets them hang out in a flavorful broth made with their cooking liquid, Grenache vinegar, sherry vinegar, toasted coriander and fennel seeds and orange oil before placing them atop thick slices of aioli-slathered toasted baguette that are then showered with a flurry of parsley leaves. I order it every time I go, which is a lot.

I've been seeing cold and room-temp marinated mussels on other menus, too, which is a good thing.

At The Gorbals in Brooklyn, Ilan Hall marinates mussels in a reduced cooking liquid splashed with vinegar and saffron before serving them in the shell over chilled rocks—a gorgeous, jewellike presentation (sans melting ice) he pulled from a Copenhagen restaurant.

At Heyday in Minneapolis, Jim Christiansen serves pickled mussels with pickled cucumbers and a layer of frozen yogurt "snow" to keep them chilly. And at L&E Oyster Bar in L.A., Spencer Bezaire smokes the bivalves over applewood for a few minutes before jarring them with olive oil, thyme, lemon zest and capers. Guests spoon the chilled mussels over toasted baguette layered with house-made chorizo.

I probably won't build a smoker at home, so I asked our food editor (and former Estela cook!), Andy Baraghani, to come up with his own take on pickled mussels (see the recipe).

He took the mussels on a trip to Asia, adding ginger, garlic, rice wine, soy and a touch of fiery Chinese La-Yu oil to the pickling liquid and some sliced turnips for texture and bite. "You get this acidic, perfectly cooked mussel, but also lingering heat from the pickling liquid," Andy says. "I love serving them on charred bread with cilantro sprigs—not just the leaves!—for added crunch."