The Copycat Chef: Mussels with Bacon and Peas from Angus McIndoe

Many reviewers, amateur and professional, have raved about the mussels at Angus McIndoe. They're true country comfort food, perfect for this time of year. As soon as I tasted the wonderful bacon-and-peas cream sauce, I thought of a recipe from The New Basics Cookbook, by the same authors of The Silver Palate: Pasta with Prosciutto and Peas, one of my all-time favorites. In a somewhat bastardized version of an Italian sauce, the prosciutto is sauteed slowly with butter and flour to make a light roux, then the cream and other ingredients are added. The Angus McIndoe cream sauce had the same bacony cohesiveness as the Rosso-Lukins version.

The combination of mussels and cream was harder to source. Where did this come from? The recipe seems to owe more to Normandy, Brittany, and the Île de Ré, famed land of mussels, than Scotland. Anthony Bourdain's version of mussels in cream sauce has many of the same qualities as the Angus McIndoe dish. By subtracting some of the particularly French ingredients - Pernod, for instance - I might find a reasonable facsimile of the Angus McIndoe version.

I cooked the mussels in beer instead and added some of their cooking liquid to the cream sauce. Surprise: it was completely disgusting. Here I had bought a whole loaf of French bread to sop up the sauce, which I couldn't even stand to eat. It was horribly bitter, especially with the addition of parsley. The lesson: don't drink beer with cream. I thought I learned that over a decade and several White Russians ago, but I must have forgotten.

Trying again, I took a page from Jacques Pepin and used his suggestion of Sancerre as an excellent cooking base for mussels. This worked a lot better. The final product, though, should really have a certain shine to it. The mussels at Angus McIndoe looked positively glazed, they were so shiny. This reminded me of Lidia Bastianich's Linguine with Bacon and Onions, in which an egg yolk is added at finishing time to achieve a similar shiny, thick sauce.

For the first version of this dish, I used real live peas instead of frozen ones, but then I figured, why bother. At Angus McIndoe, the peas were so evenly sized that they must have been frozen, and the flavor of frozen thawed peas was actually better in this sauce.

In a dish this simple, the quality of the ingredients is even more important. For the first attempt, I went to Wild Edibles on Third Avenue and 35th Street (also at Grand Central Market) for the mussels. The salesguy there was very helpful and friendly, explaining why they only sell Prince Edward Island mussels and even knocking each of them before putting them in a plastic baggie to make sure the ones he sold me were all alive. The next time around, I went to Citarella, whose mussels were almost as good, but where the service wasn't quite as helpful. When I asked the Citarella salesguy where the mussels were from, he responded "Canada." Last I checked, Canada is a pretty big country. (They were also from P.E.I.) But, miracle of miracles, Citarella apparently has caved to popular demand and is now stocking their freezer with items a little less esoteric than just edamame beans: they finally carry frozen peas and other frozen vegetables.

I used Schaller and Weber Black Forest bacon, which is the best I've found in the city. You can get it on Fresh Direct, but you have to go to a nice off-line grocery store like Garden of Eden on 14th Street to get it sliced thin, which is very important for this recipe.

A note to the fat-phobic: Though this is a seafood dish, it is decidedly not low-fat; in fact it's pretty much a heart-attack-in-a-bowl. Attempts to make a lower-fat version, using half & half instead of cream, for instance, failed and are not recommended.

Mussels with Bacon and Peas à la Angus McIndoe

Time: 35 minutes

1.6 lb. mussels
1/4 lb. bacon, very thinly sliced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 tsp sea salt
several grinds of black pepper
3/4 cup Sancerre or other dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 egg yolk

Scrub mussels under running cold water with a wire brush until their shells are clean and shiny. Check for any bits of beard poking out of the shells, and pull them out. (You probably will not find many, if any at all, with P.E.I. mussels.)

Heat the butter until foaming in a wide saute pan. Add the bacon, stir a couple times, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 1 minute, then sprinkle the flour over top and stir again. Continue cooking for about 3 minutes, until the bacon is wilted and has rendered a good deal of its fat.

Whisk in the cream and raise the heat to medium-high. Continue whisking until sauce begins to bubble and thicken, about 1 minute. Whisk in peas, salt, and pepper, and turn the heat down to the lowest temperature.

Bring the wine and water to a boil in a roomy pot, preferably fitted with a glass lid. Add the mussels and boil 3-4 minutes until they all yawn open widely, shaking the pot every once in a while to redistribute the mussels.

Scoop them out with a big wire skimmer, then carefully decant 2/3 cup of the cooking liquid, leaving any sandy residue at the bottom of the pot. Whisk the cooking liquid into the cream sauce, raise the heat to medium-high, and continue whisking 1 minute until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken again. Turn off the heat and mix in the egg yolk, then then mussels in their shells, tossing to mix the sauce evenly throughout.

Serve immediately with crusty country bread.

Serves 2.


Anonymous said...

Excuse me while I mop the screen of all my drool. And I'm not even a mussel fan.