fig. a: Brussels in December
Late last year, I found myself back in Brussels. This time around I was sans Michelle, I was working long-ish days, and, it being December, the city had a very different feel to it. Gone were the long, largely improvised strolls back and forth across the city in search of little treasures of all sorts--cultural, gastronomic, and otherwise. Gone were the long hours of daylight and the mild temperatures. In July we'd only been in Brussels for two or three days, but it had seemed like a week of adventures. Probably had something to do with the fact that we ate about a week's worth of food.
Anyway, I still made some discoveries on this latest trip to Belgium,
fig. b: discovery 1
fig. c: discovery 2
fig. d: discovery 3
but the only true culinary coup came on night #2--and it was a good one. In fact, it was one of my best meals of the year.*
From the outside, with a slow shutter speed, it looked something like this.
fig. e: La Bonne Humeur
The window ("specialité de moules") and that gunnysack behind it said it all: this was a serious mussels establishment. So serious, in fact, that they only serve mussels in season--which is why Michelle and I ate not a single, solitary mussel during our summer vacation.
The place was called La Bonne Humeur, and it was located east of the city center along Chaussée de Louvain. It was a bit of a haul from my hotel in Schaarbeek, and the night I chose to go it was absolutely raw out--cold, drizzling rain, windy--but the combination of the walk and the weather sure worked up an appetite. In spite of the weather, La Bonne Humeur looked cheery and inviting from the outside, and inside it was warm and friendly. Just the name alone ("the good humor") was enough to begin restoring my spirits--the combination of the atmosphere and the heady aromas quite nearly completed the task.
By the time I sat down, there was just about nothing I wanted more than a steaming cauldron of moules and the good people at La Bonne Humeur were happy to oblige. By the kilo. That's right, the standard portion of mussels at La Bonne Humeur is a healthy 2.2 pounds of the plumpest, juiciest Dutch mussels (from Zeeland, naturally) you could possibly imagine. I loved the way they served them too: heaped in a heavy, enameled cast-iron cauldron (in other words, as they should be), with plenty of celery and fennel, and plenty of broth. Their frites were good, too. Not quite Frites Flagey-good, but fresh, crisp, and piping hot, and served with a tangy homemade mayonnaise. With a cold beer and The New Yorker's Food Issue at my side, this was pretty much my ideal businessman's dinner.
So I came back to Montreal raving. But the thing is, I could sense reluctance on Michelle's part. I kept saying how much I wanted to try and replicate my feast at La Bonne Humeur, and she kept saying, "uh, huh." So I pressed her on the matter and it turned out she liked mussels, but she'd never had a plate of mussels that she'd ever loved. "Never?," I asked. "Never."
Well, those days are gone. When I finally got Michelle to agree to let me make my La Bonne Humeur special for her with the plumpest, juiciest P.E.I. mussels I could find, she changed her tune. Now I have carte blanche to make them whenever I want. And the thing about mussels is: they're so affordable. When was the last time you bought over 4 pounds of Grade A seafood and the cost came in under $10? Thought so.
Now, I don't have La Bonne Humeur's actual recipe, but with the help of a few friends, like Richard Olney and Julia Child, I was able to get close.
fig. f: mussels soaking in brine
Moules à La Bonne Humeur
4-4 1/2 lbs fresh mussels, scrubbed, then soaked in salt water for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking
1/2 cup minced shallots, green onions, or finely minced onions
4 stalks celery, 2 cut into 3-4" lengths, 2 finely chopped
1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1 leek, cleaned, and finely chopped
6 tbsp butter
2 cups dry white wine
generous handful of parsley, chopped or whole
1 bay leaf
1/4-1/2 tsp fresh thyme
freshly ground black pepper
As noted (and pictured) above, make sure to soak the mussels in briny salt water for 15-20 minutes prior to cooking.
Meanwhile, in a large pot or, preferably, a large enameled cast-iron cauldron, heat one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots (or onions) and sauté until softened and sweet, 5-10 minutes. Add the finely chopped celery, the fennel, and the leek and sauté for 5 minutes more. Add the wine, the remainder of the butter, the celery lengths, the parsley, the bay leaf, the thyme, and the black pepper, bring the wine to a boil, and reduce for 2-3 minutes.
Add the mussels. Cover tightly and boil over high heat, shaking and tossing the contents (while holding the lid firmly in place) from time to time over a period of 3-5 minutes (and up to 10 minutes). The vast majority of the mussels shells should have opened.
Give the mussels another healthy grind of black pepper and serve heaped in bowls with plenty of the broth ladled over.
We didn't have an enameled chaudron large enough to cook 2 kg of mussels, so we made ours in a large pot. Our largest enameled chaudron was just large enough to serve our big, beautiful batch of mussels, however, so that's exactly what we did.
fig. g: moules à La Bonne Humeur
Note: common wisdom says to discard any and all mussels that haven't opened after the required cooking time. However, both Richard Olney and John Bil (formerly of Montreal's Joe Beef, and currently with New York's Flex Mussels) recommend using good old-fashioned common sense. Open the culprit with a knife, take a good look. If it looks fine and smells fine, it probably is fine. In fact, Olney insists that the ones that need to be forced open with a knife (after adequate cooking time, of course) "are often the best."
"What about the frites," you say? Well, we didn't make actual Belgian-style frites, but we used our current #1 roasted potato recipe and came up with a substitute that was perfectly acceptable and downright delicious. The recipe goes something like this...
Zuni Café Roasted Potatoes
1 1/2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled or not, cut into irregular 1- to 1 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400º F.
Place the potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan and add cold water to cover by a few inches. Salt the water liberally, stir to dissolve, and taste--it should be well seasoned. (Judy Rodgers recommends "a scant 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt per quart water.") Bring to a simmer over high heat and stir again, then reduce the heat so that it just holds the simmer. Cook until the potatoes are soft on the edges and tender inside, about 6-12 minutes, depending on the potato and the size of your chunks (generally, 10 minutes is ideal for us). Drain well. Taste. The potatoes should be perfectly seasoned and tasty already. Place in a bowl while still warm.
Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Don't worry if some of the slightly overcooked potatoes crumble a bit. Those bits will end up becoming heavily coveted crunchy bits when the roasting is done.
Transfer the potatoes and their oil (and any potato bits) to a roasting pan that is both wide and shallow. Roast until golden, rotating the pan and stirring the potatoes as needed so that they color evenly. Judy Rodgers recommends 20-25 minutes, but we've found that to get the potatoes to the state of perfection, it takes a good 45-60 minutes.
Once the potatoes are perfectly golden-brown and crispy, they'll hold well (according to Judy Rodgers, they may even improve) at 275º F, making this recipe ideal as a roasted potato recipe for dinner parties and large groups.
We found that they were also pretty choice with our moules, especially with mayonnaise (preferably homemade) mixed with a dollop of strong mustard.
Serves 4 as a side.
[based very closely on Judy Rodgers' Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes (her original throws "bruised" rosemary leaves into the mix) from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook]
Serve the two recipes above with a nice green salad and a fine beer or crisp white wine. Even non-believers will see the light. Even the ill-humored will suddenly discover good humor.
Or, when in Brussels:
La Bonne Humeur, 244 Chaussée de Louvain, 1000 Brussels
ps--many thanks to Clotilde for the tip.
* Sorry, Michelle.