I know what you’re thinking. “Ooooh… Mussels with a fancy looking c. This must be complicated and expensive.” Au contraire, mes amis. Don’t let the upscale restaurant uber-markup fool you. This dish is remarkably easy, super flavourful and, best of all, dirt cheap. I was able to pick up two pounds of fresh, live mussels from my local grocer for under five dollars. They were already cleaned and de-bearded as well (more on this later)! So even on a budget, you can impress your date with this idiot-proof appetizer that is guaranteed to please.

Ingredients:

2 lb Mussels

5 strips Maple Leaf Bacon

½ Red Onion

3 cloves Garlic

2 Banana Peppers (or your favourite hot pepper)

2 cups Dry White Wine

1 can (~14oz) Diced tomato

¼ cup Fresh Basil

2 tbsp Oregano

Juice of half a lemon

Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions

1. Before we begin cooking anything, we have to make sure our mussels are nice and clean. Most grocers will sell mussels already cleaned, but I like to give them at least another rinse in COLD WATER. We don’t want to cook them just yet.

Tip: If it looks like your mussels have ‘fur’ on them, they have not been debearded, nor cleaned. The beard is just what the mussels use to stick on to stuff, like rocks, docks, boats etc. You can remove this with your hands under running water or with a paring knife. It’s up to you. You should also then scrub the shells with a brush to remove any excess sand.

2. Doing this will also give us an opportunity to inspect all of the mussels.

Rule of thumb: don’t cook open mussels. If a mussel looks like it’s open slightly, try and close it with your fingers under slight pressure. If it stays closed, you’re good to go. When in doubt, throw it out. If a mussel is open before we cook it, it means it is already dead – this can lead to bad things.

3. Once you’ve cleaned and sorted through all of your mussels, put them in a bowl and back into the fridge so they stay cold (and alive). At this point we can do all of our chopping. Cut up the bacon into little pieces, dice your garlic and onion, deseed and dice your hot pepper and chiffonade your basil. Yes, chiffonade. Google it. Since we are making a French dish, you might as well learn the terminology while you’re at it.

4. Now let’s cook! Grab the biggest pot you have with a tight fitting lid. I know it might seem a little large, but the excess space will give the mussels lots of room to steam and cook evenly. In your large pot, fry up your bacon until it’s nice and crispy. Add your garlic, onion and hot pepper and fry everything together until the onions and peppers have gone soft. It should take a few minutes. Remember to scrape the bottom of the pan to get off everything that’s stuck – a lot of flavour is in there.

5. Dump in your wine to deglaze your pan. Add your tomatoes, lemon juice, basil and oregano and bring everything to a boil.

Tip: There are few things worse than an overcooked mussel. The texture is stringy and a little bit gritty, for lack of a better word. I don’t know how restaurants do this so often, because it’s extremely easy to tell when a mussel is cooked: it opens up! So here’s the infallible method to cooking mussels.

6. The simmering sauce produces beautifully flavoured steam. We will use this to cook our mussels to perfection. Dump your mussels right in with your sauce. Since we’re using such a large pot, they shouldn’t be submerged. Throw the lid on and set your timer for three minutes.

7. After three minutes, take off the lid and look around. Have any opened up? Most of them probably have. If so, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon. Try to work quickly because we don’t want to overcook these puppies. If there are some that are still closed, leave them and put the lid back on. Check them again in a minute or so.

8. Once all the mussels are cooked, let your sauce reduce a bit. It shouldn’t get too thick; it should be light and fairly loose. Add salt and pepper as necessary and then pour your sauce right over your bowl of mussels.

To recap: Don’t cook open ones, don’t eat closed ones. Your bowel will thank you.

There you have it. Fool-proof Mussels Provençal. Très facile, oui?