You say pistou, I say pestle

Okay, you were expecting a disquisition on Potted Peppers this week.  I’m sorry, but for technical reasons we’ve had to postpone it.  In the meantime, console yourself with these Mussels with Pistou instead.  We’ll get the Potted Peppers out in a few weeks.  All things come to those who wait.

In April I met our son Oliver in Paris.  He was winding up a junior semester in London, I had some credit card miles burning a hole dans ma pôche and we had a standing offer to stay with our friend Amy who lives near Bastille.

Pourquoi non? 

This was more of a Let’s-talk-about-the-next-step-in-your-life visit than a sprint through museums or attempt to add a few more notches to one’s Michelin star life list.  But it was Paris, after all, so between plying the boulevards and weighing the important questions we squeezed in a few museums and one memorable restaurant meal.

Chez Janou is a Provençal restaurant a stone’s throw from the Place de Vosges, but it would not be out of place in a village in the Vaucluse, a village with well-off visitors.  The effortlessly urbane (Oliver, oui; moi, non) crowded a small bar space, sampling the restaurant’s list of 85 pastis while waiting for a seat in the cramped dining room.  In fact, everything about the place was jammed, the aisles, the seats, the tables.  And loud, but with the convivial bruit of people eating, drinking, and having a great time.

Chez Janou’s carte of Provençal specialties inspired more anticipatory pleasure than reverence, which was fine with us.  As a prelude to my potted peppers with feta and Oliver’s grilled sardines we tried two pastis recommended by our waitress.  Le Grand Bleu was, as one might expect, the hue of an aquamarine energy drink.  Its lush,  licorice flavor proclaimed this is about as licorice-y an experience you’re ever going to taste in life.   La Fleur de Mal, our second choice, resembled a traditional pastis, with a green lemon glow and a deep licorice flavor, but after I swallowed my mouth was flooded with a startling chocolate finish.

Is there something peculiarly tongue-in-cheek about the aperitif community?  In addition to being the name of a pastis, Le Grand Bleu is the title of a movie, the name of the world’s largest yacht, and a colloquial French term for the Mediterranean.  The name of our second pastis calls up Charles Baudelaire’s poisonous verse paean to decadence, Les Fleurs du Mal. 

Ah, those French, always checking to see who’s paying attention.

Oliver’s entree, a big bowl of steamed mussels flavored with pistou, the thick Provençal sauce of basil and garlic crushed with olive oil (and a little cheese, if you’re a modernist) planted the seed for today’s post.  Jody and I love mussels but somehow we’d never had them with either pistou or pesto.  Time to haul out the mortar and pestle, which shares an etymological cousinage with both pistou and pesto; both come from the Latin verb pistāre, meaning to crush or pound.

Of course my wife can’t simply duplicate a dish, oh no, she has to fiddle with it, turning it into something else, an appetizer.  Read through the recipe.  If you want everything simpler just throw it all in a bowl.  Jody explains.  Happy pounding.

Moules au Pistou

(Mussels with Pistou)

Makes a dramatic appetizer for a bunch of people, a light lunch for 4, especially with a salad, or a killer dinner for two.

Buy an extra half dozen mussels – there are usually a few you will have to discard.


  • 48 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
  • ½ cup grated tomato, 2 medium tomatoes
  • 2 cups firmly packed washed and dried basil leaves (about 2.5 ounces), stems reserved
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
  • Course sea salt or Kosher salt
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
  • 3 tablespoons finely minced shallots
  • ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 baguette


  1. Check each mussel to ensure it is alive. If there are any open, squeeze the shells together. If they close, they”re alive, if they don’t they’re dead and should be discarded. Check the remaining mussels to be sure they aren’t “mudders” by pushing the two shells so they begin to slide over each other. It will soon be apparent if they are full of mussel or mud.
  2. Put the grated tomato in a sieve set over a bowl to catch the juices. sprinkle a little salt over the tomatoes and stir. Allow to drain minutes.
  3. Coarsely chop the basil leaves. In a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic and basil together with a pinch of salt to a puree. Gradually stir in ½ cup olive oil until fully incorporated. Add the cheese and tomato and adjust salt as necessary.  If you want to use a food processor instead of mortar and pestle put the basil in the processor with the garlic and salt and pulse to chop the basil further.  With the machine running, add the ½ cup oil in a steady stream until fully combined. With either method, transfer the pistou to a bowl and stir in the cheese and the drained tomato. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  4. Heat the remaining olive oil with the shallots and basil stems in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Cook until the shallots are tender, about 2 minutes. Add the pepper flakes, mussels, any tomato juices, the reserved basil stems and white wine.  Cover and cook until the mussels just open, 2 to 3 minutes.   The mussels are going to see the heat again so don’t cook them too long.  Scoop them out and spread them on a baking sheet in a single layer to cool.
  5. Put the pan back on the heat and reduce the juices by half.  Discard the basil leaves.
  6. Preheat the broiler. Cut the baguette in half lengthwise. Smear with the reduced mussel juices. Remove any remaining beards and one shell from each mussel, preferably the same side of each mussel.  Arrange the mussels over the baguette halves.  Top each mussel with a dollop of pistou.  Run the baguette halves under the broiler until the mussels are bubbling and the edges of the bread are toasty.
  7. Serve on a platter and pass the remaining pistou in a bowl. Let your guests rip into the bread after the mussels are gone.

Jody notes:

It was in France 30 years ago that I first fell in love with mussels.  A poor, newly-minted graduate from Brown University I was making my way through France, Italy and Spain with a Eurail pass, a backpack and $10.00 a day to spend on everything.  Big bowls of moules à la Normande (mussels steamed in cider) served with fries kept me going through my rounds of Paris museums.  Years later a family in Provence taught me to open mussels raw and grill them with olive oil and a pinch of pepper.  These same grilled mussels have been a staple at Rialto for 18 years, disappearing only briefly when we replace them with littleneck clams grilled the same way.  At home we steam and grill mussels, and even sometimes buy them smoked, a favorite with our kids when they were little.

The traditional version of today’s dish is simpler than my presentation (sorry, I can’t help myself).  After the mussels finish steaming toss them in the pan with big spoonful of pistou, then serve them in bowls with their juices and the baguette on the side.  Pass a bowl with extra pistou.   Four dozen mussels will serve 2 hungry people as a main course.  Adjust quantities accordingly.  As written, the recipe makes extra pistou because I like having a little container of it to play with the next day.  This recipe makes enough pistou for 8 dozen mussels. 

You don’t have to use all basil in the recipe.  If you happen to have an abundance of parsley, fresh oregano, cilantro, or even sage, you can substitute some of them for part of the basil. 

The cheese is optional. I happen to like the sharpness of the pecorino in this dish and don’t feel guilty about pairing cheese and shellfish

When we wrote our cookbook, IN THE HANDS OF A CHEF, at the turn of the century, we included a recipe for pesto, advising people to mince the garlic with the “smash and smear” technique – you smash the garlic with the side of a chef’s knife, sprinkle it with salt, then smear everything together by drawing the edge of the angled blade across the ingredients.  The edges of the salt crystals physically break down the garlic as well as chemically softening the garlic cell walls.  After a good smash and smear mincing is effortless.  These days we tend to use a microplane.  In order to preserve some tradition in this recipe (and because I prefer the chunkier texture you get when you do it by hand) I used a ceramic mortar and pestle.  Pesto fatigue must have set in – the pestle broke halfway through the recipe and I had to use a food processor to finish it. 

Although I grew up eating razor clams and steamers on Cape Cod, it’s the mussels I look forward to these days.  Barnstable, where we go every summer, has amazing local mussels.  I love knowing that mussels and other bivalves like oysters and clams help keep the local harbor clean.  Such a humble little creature with such a big job.  Sounds like the title of a children’s book… THE LITTLE MUSSEL THAT COULD. 

19 thoughts

  1. I don’t know where to start:the mussels, fab! How timely. Always need more ideas for them–great summer food. Keep fiddling Jody!
    Oliver! The epi-tome of cool-ness. Just needs a cigarette hanging out of his mouth (but that would spoil his taste buds.)

  2. Thanks again for suggesting Chez Janou on our recent trip to Paris! It met the high bar you set for it. And we ordered the mussels there too- how fun!

  3. My grandmother, a terrific cook, loved mussels, but she lived high in the Litchfield Hills of NW CT, and local markets didn’t then carry guaranteed-fresh shellfish. My clever cousin Charlotte figured out that she could get great mussels here in Boston and simply drive them, on ice, the three hours it takes to get to West Cornwall. Ruth, grandmere, had a few strokes in the early 80’s. One day Charlotte phoned me and said, “We have to go Ruth’s. The doctor says she might pass on any time now.” Ruth was in a coma, had been for a few days. But of course, we had to bring mussels. Long story short. On our arrival, Ruth was still in the coma. Charlotte and I announced excitedly that we’d brought superb mussels. A tiny flicker of attention seemed to pass beneath Ruth’s closed eyelids. We went into the kitchen, cooked; the old standard, white wine, butter, parsley, steamed ’em up. Well guess what happened. When we brought Ruth her aromatic bowl of hot mussels & juices, she woke up! And laughed, feebly but delightedly. This called for a drink. Ruth had a special canvas bag and a mallet for crushing ice. We literally spoon-fed her crushed ice and bourbon. She was so grateful. And couldn’t stop giggling. She died very late that night.

    • Louis–First of all, I’m sorry not to have answered you sooner. We were riding in the PanMass Challenge this weekend and pedaling in a device-free bubble, so we didn’t get your comment. What an extraordinary food story! Food has powers we can only intuit. Thank you for sharing it. A an aside, you’ve had the most baroque upbringing of anyone I know. Ken

  4. Wonderful writing about a great recipe. Nice to hear about Jody’s experiences year ago in France, and Ken and Oliver’s more recently. Superb photographs, too.

  5. The mussels dish looks so good. I wish I could get them where I live but we can’t get fresh seafood in Page, Arizona. But if I ever get the chance I will try this recipe. I’m new to word press and have been blogging for a week. My blog is about cooking too. I think you have some great recipes on your website. I invite you long to look at my website I have been trying to get feedback but I’m having a hard time. One more thing how do you get such great pictures of your food? I take pictures of my food and they don’t come out that well. I try using more light and color but it just doesn’t work.

  6. Hi Jody and Ken,
    I just stumbled across your wonderful blog. Love the recipes and great photos to boot. I thought I’d found some kindred spirits when I read that you adore harissa, preserved lemons, slow roasted tomatoes etc… my kind of people! I’m looking forward to pondering longer over your site.

  7. I am really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one today..

  8. Happy pounding, indeed. I too never cared for mussels until having them in France, but once hooked, I was hooked for good. Love the presentation of each half shell with a touch of pesto, but may try just tossing it all in a bowl too. Never got the French’s obsession with Pastis before dinner, I do like the taste, but the stuff totally numbs my palate and I struggle to taste my meal after a few sips of the stuff.

  9. Pingback: A Good Time to be Me! « Sweetness, Warmth, and Plenty

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