This mussel dish is a staple in my house. I make it probably once a month, or every other month. I like it because it is really easy- and fairly light. I serve it as an entree for 2 people with a side salad, or it could be a first course for 4 people. It is quick- about 25 minutes from start to finish. The BEST part about this dish is using the crunchy bread to soak up the broth that comes from the wine and juice from the mussels.
Adding the clam juice helps give this dish a stronger sea flavor and more deliciousness to sop up with your bread. Honestly- I don’t know if I make this more so I can eat the bread or the mussels- but both are delicious.
You can make the bread first- and set it aside, reheating right before service if necessary. Preheat your oven to broil. Using about 1/2 a french baguette, cut 3/4 inch slices of bread on a bias and lay them out on a sheet pan. Drizzle or paint each piece with extra virgin olive oil on the top side, salt and pepper each piece.
Place sheet tray under the brolier and keep a close eye on it. 3 out of 5 times I probably burn the bread- it goes very fast! So after maybe 2 minutes the bread should be golden brown, a little darker brown on the edges, and obviously crisp. Remove it from the oven and set aside until later- if you want to reheat it before service put it in a 200 degree oven while the mussels are cooking.
Start by cleaning the mussels- use a colander and run them under cold water until any dirt seems to be gone. Some may need a bit of a scrub. While you’re cleaning if you notice that any of the mussels are not closing encourage them to shut by pinching them closed, if they still don’t close then sadly they are dead and you need to throw them away- they are not safe to eat. If the mussels have any little hairy looking bits atttached to them, called the beard, give them a quick pluck and remove that as well. Once they are cleaned you can leave them in the colander over a bowl and keep them refrigerated until they are ready to be used.
Prepare the fennel by first removing the tops, some people save these and use bits of them on a salad- or they could be used later in this dish as garnish. Personally I don’t like the texture of them so if I am not saving them to use in a stock I usually send them to the compost. Cut the fennel bulbs in half lengthwise and cut out the triangle shaped core in the bottom.
Then slice each half into thin segments, also lengthwise.
Cut the onion in thin slices to be about the same size as the fennel.
I use a enameled cast iron dutch oven for this typically- but any largish pot that has a lid will work. Heat the oil in this pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and fennel and saute until they start to get a bit soft, about 5 minutes.
Sometimes if I have a tomato on hand I’ll dice it and add it now, if you were using a tomato let it cook a little bit then go in with the wine and stir it up. Turn the heat down and let the wine reduce a little, about 1/4. I buy any white wine between $8-$10 that is not a Chardonnay- so usually a Savigon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio- but there are all sorts of white wines that work here. Also if you wanted to increase that anise flavor you can skip the wine and opt for a liquor like Pernod, Sambuca, or Ouzo (which are all anise liquors).
Add the pepper now, then the clam juice and the mussels. The clam juice is optional too but it will really add to the broth at the end- and when I don’t use it I always wish that I had. Cover up the mussels and let them cook for about four minutes- the rule with mussels is pretty much as soon as they start to open up you want to get them out of the pot. They will open and you can see the mussel inside will go from a gummy white texture to a more firm light pink. After about four minutes take the lid off and fish out any of the mussels that are ready to come out- placing them directly in your serving bowl(s). Stir the remaining mussels in the pot around and cover again for about a minute- then remove the ones that are done- keep doing this until all the mussels are opened and out of the pot. Any mussels that don’t open- throw away. Pour everything that remains in the pot over the mussels. Top them off with some chopped parsley and serve immediately with the crostini. I usually serve them in a large bowl to share- but individual bowls are nice as well.