Gypsy Kitchens: Moules à la Bretonne

We cook mussels a lot because they are so simple, cheap and delicious. There may not be another dish that is this easy and feels as luxurious. On the northern coast of Brittany - Breton in Gallic, Bretagne in French - camping near the chilly, autumnal Atlantic, it finally seemed like the right time to do a Gypsy Kitchens post about this standby. We dressed them up a little, giving this version a regional twist and a more substantial broth (heartier, one might say, to get us through a cool night in the tent). Here, then, is our cider and white-bean recipe for mussels, what we are calling "Moules à la Bretonne."
Of course, Mussels don't require a recipe at all. Often, there is nothing worth doing to them except adding a little wine and garlic, steaming and serving. The idea, here, was to focus on the broth. This region, along with Normandy, is famous for its apples and ciders, and it seemed appropriate to use a local tipple in place of the typical white wine or vermouth. It should be noted that this is a hard cider, and a dry one at that. One could use a sweet, fresh cider, but it might be a little overwhelming. To make everything even more fun, we chopped up some ginger to accompany the shallot and garlic in the base.
Using a good dose of olive oil or butter, soften a finely-chopped shallot or yellow onion (or two shallots, or even a few leeks) in a pot that's large enough for all of the shells. Cook the well-minced ginger with the onion - use as much as seems right to you, anywhere from a tablespoon to several - and notice one of the best smells in cooking as the two roots mingle and become aromatic. Add the garlic when the onions are just on the verge of browning, cook a few seconds more, then add the white beans. Because we're on a campsite, the beans came from a can. Warm up the beans, then add the mussels, some cider and cover the pot.
Backing up a moment here, it might be worth mentioning that picking through your shellfish beforehand is always a good idea. Discard any badly broken mussels and any that are wide open. If the shell is open a little, and stays closed when you squeeze it, it's likely fine. Also, pull out any bits of detritus stuck in the cracks, and - if you can bare one more step - give the guys a good rinse in cold water before cooking. We probably don't have to tell anyone not to eat any mussels that haven't opened when they're cooked, or any that smell foul. One more note - there is a lot of salt in most shellfish, so adding more is never necessary, no matter how much you want to.
Cook the mussels for about twelve minutes, keeping the pot covered the entire time. If the shells haven't opened after twelve minutes, cook them for another three or four minutes. Then - and this sounds silly, but it's true - you're done. Just put the mussels in bowls, ladle some of the broth over the top and eat.
The broth was actually even better than we'd hoped. As the breeze got cooler and more blustery, we huddled at the picnic table, eating bowl after bowl. The local mussels were delicious and tender. The slight sweetness of the cider counteracted the brine in the broth to perfection, and the beans gave the juice a nice focal point.
A funny thing about mussels - they always fill you up more than expected. After finishing the dishes (there weren't many to do), we got into the tent feeling stuffed. Listening to the sea and the wind outside we talked about how satisfyingly maritime the evening had been.

Here's the recipe, as laughably easy as it is...
Moules à la Bretonne
3 to 4 pounds mussels, cleaned well and bought fresh
1 can white beans, rinsed
2 shallots, minced
3 tablespoons ginger, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
2 to 3 cups dry, alcoholic cider
Olive oil or butter

The Process:
- Clean and rinse the mussels, discarding any broken or wide open specimens.
- In a pot that is at least 1 and 1/3 the size of all the mussels (to account for the shells opening and expanding, which they will), lightly saute the shallots and ginger until the shallots have softened, but not browned.
- Add the garlic and cook for a few moments. Pour in the beans and cook until warmed through, about two minutes.
- Add the mussels and the cider and cover tightly. Turn the heat up to medium high, lowering if the pot begins to boil over.
- Cook 12 minutes, or until most of the shells have opened. Remove from the heat and serve as immediately as possible.
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