Rich Mussel Bisque with Shrimpmeat Garlic Toasts and Nasturtiums

Billi-Bi is a mussel soup made famous by Maxim’s in Paris, and I can never think of mussel soup without thinking of some very louche lunches there, when I always ordered this soup.

As with the Billi-Bi, in my restaurant we didn’t put the mussels in the soup, if only for profit reasons (getting money for the mussels twice). They were used at lunch in a creamed gratin (no cheese) or served as a snack sizzling in garlic oil. Sometimes we made a sandwich out of them with hot nan from our tandoor oven, stuffing the nan with the mussels and a cream flavored with salt-preserved lemons and mint. You could put them on English muffins, with the lemons and mint cream on top, and serve with the soup.

You can chop the mussels up and put them in the soup or, for a richer and thicker bisque, puree half of them and whisk into the finished soup with the other half either put into the soup whole or pureed and put on the toasts instead of prawn meat. The nasturtiums, apart from looking wonderful, add a peppery flavor. Use them only when you can pick them yourself from your garden or can buy them guaranteed pesticide-free.

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Ingredients

Soup

  • 2 pounds mussels, washed, “bearded”
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 6 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ cup dry white wine(Sauvignon Blanc, for example)
  • 4 cups fish stock, or a mixture of fish and clam
  • ½ cup fresh white breadcrumbs from 2-day-old bread(or bread dried in oven)
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon saffron powder mixed with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter
  • Saltand freshly ground white pepper

Garnish

  • 8 large cooked fresh prawns
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 4 slices white bread, cut ½-inch thick, cut into 4-inch rounds, dried out in oven
  • 6 nasturtium flowers, stemmed, shredded

Method

Put 2 tablespoons of the butter in a pot with the shallots, thyme, and bay leaf. Add a tablespoon of water, cover, and sweat for 10 minutes over very low heat until the shallots are tender and translucent.

Add the mussels and white wine, turn up the heat to high, cover, and cook 3 minutes, shaking the pot often. Add the stock and cook another 3 minutes or until all the mussels have just opened. Take them out and drain, saving any juices (to be added back to the pot). Decant the liquid out of the pot with a ladle into a bowl, so that any sand stays in the bottom of the cooking pot. Throw away the residue and rinse out the pot.

Put the saved liquid back in the pot with the breadcrumbs and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Put through a sieve, add the cream, and put in a pot to be heated when needed. Up to this point the soup can be prepared several hours ahead and refrigerated.

Finely chop the prawns and mix with the sour cream, cardamom, tarragon, and lemon juice. This is best prepared at least 1 hour ahead.

To serve, bring the soup to a simmer, turn off the heat, whisk in the saffron butter, and season. Ladle the hot soup into warmed, flat, open soup plates.

Spread the prawn meat on the toasts and float one toast in each bowl of soup. Sprinkle the shredded flowers over the toasts.

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