In the South of France, where mussels are a staple, this is a very popular appetizer. Once you get the hang of it, you may substitute herbs and spices of your choice.
5 pounds fresh mussels
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup finely chopped fennel
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeds removed, and finely chopped 1 cup crushed canned tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads (optional)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or parsley
Scrub the mussels, remove beards and barnacles, and wash in cold water, agitating with the hand; repeat until the water remains clear. Drain well.
Heat oil in a large saucepan or pot. Add garlic, fennel, onions, and sweet red pepper, and cook briefly over medium-high heat until wilted. Do not burn the garlic. Stir often.
Add tomatoes, saffron, turmeric, pepper flakes, wine, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer 2 minutes.
Add mussels and basil. Cover tightly, and cook over high heat until all mussels are opened, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately with French bread or a crusty Italian loaf.