I sat on a chest against the taffrail, enjoying the salty breeze and the tarry, fishy smells of ships and harbor. It was still cold, but with my cloak pulled tight around me, I was warm enough. The ship rocked slowly, rising on the incoming tide; I could see the beards of algae on nearby dock pilings lifting and swirling, obscuring the shiny black patches of mussels between them.
The thought of mussels reminded me of the steamed mussels with butter I had had for dinner the night before, and I was suddenly starving. The absurd contrasts of pregnancy seemed to keep me always conscious of my digestion; if I wasn’t vomiting, I was ravenously hungry. The thought of food led me to the thought of menus, which led back to a contemplation of the entertaining Jared had mentioned. Dinner parties, hm? It seemed as odd way to begin the job of saving Scotland, but then I couldn’t really think of anything better.
Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (Chapter 6 – Making Waves)
<Blog post and recipe originally published March 13, 2012. Republished today with a revised recipe for Steamed Mussels with Butter that will appear in Outlander Kitchen: The Official Outlander Companion Cookbook, available June 14, 2016>
I worked under 3 French chefs during my time in professional kitchens. This recipe belongs to the first.
Chef P. was my culinary skills instructor. The crusty son of a Parisian bakery owner who went on to cook in some of Europe’s greatest restaurants, he was never short of a story — once the work was done and every last pot lid was put away — he would often regale us with a tale from the kitchens of old. My favourites were from his childhood, in his father’s bakeries, where he learned from master bakers who started everyday outside the back door, cigarettes in hand, feeling the early morning air before returning inside to mix the day’s doughs according to their temperature and humidity readings.
Those early lessons influenced Chef P. — he was all about using your instincts in the kitchen. Ask him how long to cook something, and he would invariably shake his head in exasperation, growl “Until it’s done!” then peer quizzically at you, as though the knives in your proverbial drawer were a little dull, before turning to answer the next “silly” question.
(I did say he was crusty.)
Compound butter, or beurre composé, is a mixture of softened butter and flavourings used in sauces, or atop vegetables, meats and seafood.
This is a slightly simplified version of Chef P’s original mussel butter, which we made in 10lb batches with a few extra ingredients that aren’t common in the average home-kitchen pantry. My version is a little easier to put together and still packed with flavour.
Besides, I couldn’t, in good conscience, give away another chef’s secrets. At least not all of them.
Packed in-shell with a colourful and decadent compound butter, serve these meaty morsels from the sea with a loaf of crusty bread and a sharply dressed green salad to balance the butter’s richness.
The leftover compound butter is delicious on toast under a poached egg, stirred into mashed potatoes, or perched atop over a grilled steak.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as an appetizer
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 small shallot, diced
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated or minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- 3 to 4 pounds (1½ to 2 kilograms) mussels
- 1 cup white wine
Combine the butter, shallot, garlic, tomato paste, lemon juice, parsley, basil, salt, pepper and cayenne in a food processor and pulse until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Alternatively, combine everything in a large bowl and mash with a fork until combined.
Inspect the mussels to ensure they are all closed. Discard any with broken shells, or those open ones that don’t close immediately when tapped. Use a small, stiff brush to remove barnacles and/or seaweed.
Arrange half of the mussels in a single layer in a large skillet, add half of the wine, cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Steam until all of the mussels are open, about 3 minutes. Remove the mussels from the pan and repeat with remaining mussels and wine.
When cool enough to handle, discard the empty half shells and use a knife to loosen the meat from the other halves. Trim the meat of any thread-like “beards” that you find.
Use a small spoon or knife to cover the meat and fill the shell with the compound butter. Arrange on a baking sheet, wrap with plastic and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Move the rack to the top position and preheat the oven broiler or grill.
Cook the mussels until the butter is melted and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately with lots of fresh crusty bread to soak up all that coral-coloured, flavour-filled butter.
- Compound butters are full of big flavours, and, when combined with the mussels, things could get overly salty very quickly, so this recipe is one of the few unsalted butter.
- When you purchase mussels, choose damp, shiny, fresh-smelling specimens with securely closed shells. (Mussels left undisturbed will open their shells slightly. Tap open shells firmly. If the shell closes, it is still alive. Discard those that don’t close.) Avoid mussels with broken or split shells, or those that smell fishy. Store them in the refrigerator layered in damp newspaper or cloth. Avoid plastic containers or bags which will suffocate them. Wait to clean until just before cooking.