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Here, Taste This: Mussels and Saison

Summer is all about easy. So here’s a beer that’s easy to drink, a recipe that’s easy to make, and a pairing that’s easy to love.


Mussels and Modern Times Saison | Photo by Bruce Glassman

This is the best thing to say to a wine lover who doesn’t like beer: “Here, taste this saison.” A good saison is the best beer style I’ve found that can bridge the gap between wine and beer. Think of it as a kind of “beer ambassador” to the wine world. Saisons typically have a fruitiness paired with a crisp acidity (not unlike a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio) but they are not overly hoppy. This means that people who aren’t fond of the “bitterness” in beer will still find this style of beer pleasing.

Saisons also do a great job substituting for white wine in the world of cooking. In the vast number of cases, a cook can use saison instead of white wine in a recipe and wind up with a dynamite variation—you won’t have the same flavors exactly, but—in terms of components—you’ll have many of the same notes in the dish. If you like this idea, here’s a great way to start experimenting with the beer-for-wine substitution cooking strategy: Mussels steamed in saison. Do a big pot of steamed mussels using saison as part of the steaming liquid instead of the traditional white wine. And, given the fact that it’s summer (and we should all be super relaxed) don’t even worry about following a recipe.

Here’s what I do: Get a big pot and sauté a large onion and some shallots in some olive oil until they become translucent. Add a bottle of clam juice (or two if you like more clam flavor) and about a half head of garlic (more if you like it garlicky!). Then add about 12-16 ounces of saison to pot. Stir it all together and bring to a simmer. Add a 3-4 pound bag of cleaned mussels, stir some more to get them all wet, put the top on and let ‘em steam. When the mussels are all open, transfer them to a large bowl with a slotted spoon (discard the unopened ones). To the sauce in the pot, add a couple of tablespoons of butter, some black pepper, and some chopped fresh parsley. Let the liquid reduce until it reaches the concentration you prefer and adjust the seasoning (add salt if you need to) to your liking. Divide the mussels into bowls and ladle sauce over the top. Serve with lots of crusty bread and a few bottles of nice, cold saison.

I was inspired to cook this dish the other day when I saw a few bottles of Universal Friend from Modern Times at my local bottle shop. This saison, which is made with grape must from pinot grigio grapes, is an especially food-friendly and cooking-friendly beer. Not only does it have great wine flavor components, it also presents wonderful clove, citrus, and black pepper notes that complement the mussels perfectly.

The mussels dish doesn’t have to be done with saison; any light, crisp beer (pilsner, blonde, Belgian-style ale) will do, as long as it’s not too hoppy (hops get bitter when you boil and reduce them). The beauty of this recipe and pairing is that you can throw it together in about 15-20 minutes, you can use whatever cooking liquid ingredients you have on hand, and it makes a delicious light-but-satisfying summer meal. Easy, easy, easy.

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