My Most Magic Ingredient: Crème Fraîche

Most cooks have a favorite “secret” (behind the scenes) ingredient that enhances the deliciousness of many dishes. Mine is crème fraîche. I first discovered it in France in the kitchen of my dear friend Nadège when she was making “moules marinières” and stirred a healthy dollop to the steaming mussels. Crème fraîche is heavy cream which has an added culture, rendering it thick and slightly tangy and totally delicious. On my return to the U.S. I tried making my own using 1 tablespoon of buttermilk to 1 cup of heavy cream that had not been ultra-pasteurized, and allowing it to sit in a warm spot for about 12 hours. To my surprise it was also excellent. Nowadays specialty stores in the U.S. carry crème fraîche so I don’t bother to make my own. But on a recent trip to Normandy, I tasted their variety which was ivory in color and so dreamy in flavor it made me want to pack up and move there on the spot!

Just as I always have butter, flour, and eggs on hand I also always have a small container of crème fraîche. I use it in my scrambled eggs, in chicken paprikash (sour cream breaks down when heated, crème fraîche does not), a spoonful in potato salad, as a finishing swirl in soups, lightly sweetened and whipped to go along side pies or tarts, in ganache, and an ample amount in my mussel dish. The following recipe comes from my book “Rose’s Melting Pot.”

Mussels in Mustard Dill Cream

I was born, and spent the first five years of my life in Far Rockaway, Long Island, three blocks from the ocean. My first smells, the ones to which I will always respond with deep longing, were the summer perfume of honey suckle and the ever present salty ocean air. My first memories were ocean ones: sunny hot sand and sea shells; sand dark and patterned with raindrop holes; pea soup thick fog, sand-dripping castles, luminescent August jelly fish, deep green fun-to-pop seaweed, and long jetties encrusted with tangles of bearded mussels, black and shinny with foaming surf crashing against them. "We don't eat them," my mother explained. “But other people do.” I accepted this at the time, but now I am happily among the “other people.” For me, raw unadorned oysters and steamed mussels taste most like the way the ocean smells.

This special mussel dish was one Elliott and I both loved at a former neighborhood restaurant. I tried several times to recreate it but something was always missing. Finally I remembered a trick that a French chef once shared with me: a whisper of curry powder, so little as not to be detectable as curry flavor, can add dimension and mystery to certain sauces. Happily this was one and the missing element was provided. Word of warning: Wash the mussel shells well before steaming them; this sauce is so good guests will want to lick the sauce from them!

Serves: 4 as a main course

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Rinse and scrub the mussels but don't beard them until right before cooking.

Cut half (2 tablespoons) of the butter into about ½-inch pieces and refrigerate. In a large non-corrosive saucepan, on medium heat, melt the remaining half of the butter and when bubbling, sauté the shallots and onion until transparent, about 2 minutes. Add the Vermouth and bay leaf, then the mussels. Steam covered about 5 minutes or just until open, stirring them once or twice and removing them to serving bowls one at a time, as they open, using tongs to drain any liquid back into the pot. Place them in an oven on the lowest possible setting to keep warm.

If sandy, strain the broth through cheesecloth and return it to the pot. Bring the broth to a boil and cook it at a rapid boil for about 5 minutes or until reduced to 1 1/3 cups. Add the cream, mustard, dill, pepper and curry. Bring it to a boil, whisking and cook at a slow boil for about 7 minutes, whisking occasionally until reduced to 1 1/3 cups. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cold butter, 1 piece at a time, adding the next piece after the first has melted.

Arrange the mussels in individual bowls, so that the open ends are pointing up and drizzle the sauce over the mussels.

If desired, serve with crusty French bread.

Pointers for Success

1. Buy the mussels the same day you are planning to cook them. Store them, refrigerated, in an open bag (or punch holes in the bag) or place it over ice.

2. Don't add salt; the mussel broth is quite salty on its own.


In the past, it has been necessary to soak the mussels in salt water or with a little cornmeal sprinkled on the top to rid them of their sand. Although this technique was successful, it also resulted in some loss of flavor. Fortunately, mussels these days are grown on special devices in less sandy areas, so presoaking them is not necessary.

P.S. The word for mussel in French is moule but the word for muscle is muscle! I confused the two many years ago after playing a vigorous game of tennis and announcing: “j’ai mal aux moules,” which was like saying that my mussels (as in seafood) were sore!