Suddenly, mussels are everywhere in my life.
Just a month ago, I gobbled up a bowl at the legendary Cliff House in San Francisco overlooking the raging Pacific Ocean. The black shells were intertwined with caramelized onions, swimming in a sauce laden with the Tunisian hot chili sauce called harissa and local Anchor Steam beer. Several planks of toasted herb bread weren’t quite enough to sop up the briny, spicy sauce. I asked for more.
Weeks before that, I sampled mussels swathed in a lobster saffron sauce at a French bistro in Boyne City, Mich., with Lake Charlevoix shimmering before me. This bowlful was luxury personified, the inexpensive shellfish mingling with pricey companions.
There were buy-one-get-one-free frozen mussels in garlic and wine sauce from the grocery store (cheap, but a little fishy for my taste) and green-lipped New Zealand mussels at the Nantucket Bucket in Safety Harbor in a classic white wine sauce. And then I made them at home in coconut curry sauce, plus I tried out another batch piled with garlic-bread crumbs and baked on the half shell. (These were frozen, too, but tasted fresh.)
Like I said, mussels are everywhere.
Truly, mussels are the perfect meal for the way we live – and cook – now. Not too expensive (less than $6 a pound usually) and quick to prepare. All you need is a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, some aromatics and a liquid to steam them. It’ll take about 7 minutes for a big pot of them to be ready for diners. Add bread to sop up the flavorful liquid, a green salad and you’ve got a dinner that’s tasty and fun to eat. Plan on about 1 pound per person for a main dish.
Flexing your mussels
When you purchase fresh mussels, they are alive. The shells might be slightly open, and if you tap them they will shut. Any that have cracked shells should be discarded. After they are cooked, any shells that don’t open to reveal the meaty, orange morsels inside should be tossed as well. They are potentially bad, and you don’t want to risk getting sick.
Most recipes call for cleaning the mussels and pulling off the “byssus” – beard – before cooking. Since about 90 percent of the world’s mussels are farm-raised, you’ll find them mostly beardless.
To clean mussels, place in a bowl of cold water with a bit of flour and they will spit out any sand. Rinse well before cooking. You may still get a few bits of grit. I think of it as Mother Nature’s surprise. If you aren’t cooking right away, store in the refrigerator in a bowl of water or an open plastic bag to let air circulate. Prepare within a day of purchasing.
According to environmental experts, including scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, farm-raised mussels are among the most sustainable of cultured seafood. They are ocean-friendly and don’t impact the environment negatively. Because they are filter feeders, they suck in microscopic particles, plants and nutrients, which cleans the water where they are grown.
They are grown on suspended ropes, in mesh bags or in cages that don’t rest on the ocean floor. This helps prevent habitat destruction, according to New England Aquarium experts.
Mussels have their own subtle taste, slightly salty and even reminiscent of a mushroom. They have what the Japanese call umami, a sixth taste that describes something savory and a bit meaty. They will also be chewy, more like a clam than a scallop.
They pair well with all sorts of flavors, most classically white wine, garlic, shallots, tarragon and butter.
When you are cooking mussels at home, the most important thing is not to overcook them, which will toughen the meat. Put just enough liquid in a big pot with a lid to steam the mussels. Too much liquid will boil the shellfish. That’s too severe a cooking method for the mussels, which will turn to tire tread under the weight of that roiling heat.
As the mussels open, they give off their own salty liquid to mingle with the flavors you’ve put in the pot. They are simply prepared but not what I call simple food.
Mussels With Herbed Bread Crumbs
For this recipe, look for frozen green-lipped mussels on the half shell. Fresh mussels won’t work for this recipe because they would have to be cooked first to open the shell and then baked again, resulting in tough morsels.
2 pounds frozen mussels on the half shell
2 cups fine bread crumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 cloves finely chopped garlic
¼ teaspoon dried chili flakes
Zest of half a lemon
For the garnish:
¼ cup snipped chives
¼ cup minced fresh Ital- ian flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To make topping, combine bread crumbs, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, garlic, chili flakes and lemon zest in a bowl. Place mussels meat side up on baking tray and place 1 to 2 teaspoons of topping on each mussel.
Bake until topping is golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes if mussels are frozen and 8 if thawed.
Makes 8 to 10 appetizer servings.
Source: New Zealand Greenshell Mussels
Coconut Curry Mussels
2 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded if necessary
¼ cup flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon chili flakes
3 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
1½ tablespoons curry powder
½ cup chicken broth
1 can (13.5 fluid ounces) coconut milk
Pinch of salt
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped into four pieces and smashed
3 kaffir lime leaves (optional, see note)
Place mussels in a bowl of cold water with ¼ cup of flour so the mussels will spit out any sand or mud. Let them sit for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat. Toss any mussels that are open as these are dead. Debeard the mussels, pulling out their byssal threads (aka their “beards”), and place them in a bowl of cold water until ready to use.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion and stir for a few minutes until they become soft and slightly translucent. Add the chili flakes, ginger and curry powder and stir for a minute until fragrant.
Add the chicken broth and reduce by half. Add the coconut milk, salt, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves if using and bring to a boil.
Drain and add the mussels, reduce heat to medium and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes until the mussels open.
Discard any that are closed as these were dead before cooking. (Some may only be slightly open. If you have to debate whether it’s good to eat or not, toss it.) Spoon mussels into bowls and pour on the broth. Garnish with chopped cilantro and juice from lime wedges.
Note: Kaffir lime leaf is a key ingredient in Vietnamese, Thai and Hmong cuisine. It can be found in Asian markets, though many markets now carry it in the produce aisles with other fresh herbs. The flavor is very distinct and can’t be substituted. However, you can make this dish without the leaves and the mussels will still taste great.
Serves 2 to 4.