Lunchtime in Brussels: A bowl of steaming mussels in an outdoor cafe.
Lunchtime in Brussels: A bowl of steaming mussels in an outdoor cafe.

“We’ll eat mussels in Brussels!”

That was the refrain last summer during a day trip to Brussels, Belgium. We’d decided to venture outside Paris, so we took a train to the capital of the European Union to soak up the city for a few hours.

Lunch was our No. 1 priority.

Our lunchtime view of La Grand-Place in Brussels.

We found a cafe in the city’s La Grand-Place, a market square that dates back to the 12th century. There, we slurped overflowing bowls of mussels bathed in a vegetable-laden, wine-heady broth.

Four months later, I still recall those mussels. (And that day. And that city!) So when I bought a bag of mussels yesterday at the market, I gave myself a challenge:

Could I recreate mussels in Brussels?

Usually when I make mussels, I steam them in a bath of butter and garlic and serve them over pasta. (The same treatment I give fresh clams.) But our Brussels mussels were more like a soup. Once we ate all through all that gorgeous seafood, we were rewarded with a hot, bracing broth. I knew I could make broth; but could I replicate the wine-heavy, saline/savory concoction we remembered?

I came close. The addition of a cup or so of hearty greens and a chile de Arbol punched up the spice factor. I liked it, but the family said it prevented the dish from truly becoming “Brussels Mussels.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “We’ll call this Mussels A La Brussels!”

 Mussels A La Brussels

mussel soup2

You can use any vegetable combination you like, but this seemed to mimic our Grand-Place lunch. I did, indeed, use fennel “arms,” or the spindly growths that protrude from the fennel bulb. I like how they mimic celery but give a tenderer crunch and gentler flavor. Feel free to sub celery or to chop a fennel bulb.

  • mussels2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 chile de Arbol, crumbled (optional)
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch rounds
  • 2 fennel arms, cut in 1/4-inch rounds
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Pinch of saffron
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup dry Vermouth
  • 1 bag fresh mussels, rinsed (Discard any mussels that are open and will not close or whose shells are cracked.)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped greens (I used a mix of kale and chard.)

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. When hot, add the onion, shallot and chile, if using. Season with salt and pepper, then saute until the onion is translucent.

Add the carrots and fennel and saute an additional 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saffron and saute for 30 seconds.

Add the chicken broth and Vermouth. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes:

mussels broth

Add the mussels to the pot and stir to incorporate them into the broth. Cover the pot and cook for 5-8 minutes, until the mussels have opened. Discard any that remain closed.

Add the greens and stir until they’re wilted, about 3 minutes:

mussels in pot2

Place the mussels in four wide-lipped soup bowls. Ladle the broth over, and serve with lots of crusty bread:

mussel soup1