Mussels are simple to prepare

Martha Holmberg

THE WASHINGTON POST – Quick-cooking, sweetly flavoured and with a friendly price tag (between USD5 and USD7 per pound), mussels are a near-perfect food. If you’re already a fan, you’re nodding your head, and if you’re not yet familiar with mussels, let’s remedy that.

Let’s first talk about flavour. Mussels are briny yet sweet and mild, with no “fishy” notes. The bite-size morsel inside the shell is succulent and tender – no rubber-band chewiness like with a clam. Its neutral taste pairs nicely with seasonings across the spectrum, from creamy to herbal to spicy, and the nooks and crannies of meat plus the cup of the shells help mussels capture and deliver flavour in every bite.

Almost all of the mussels you’ll buy retail are farm-raised, meaning they’re plentiful year-round. Before your eco-alarm starts beeping, know that mussel farming is one of the most sustainable and clean seafood cultivation programmes around, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. You’ll find good mussel farms in the Atlantic off the northeastern coast of the United States (US) as well as in the Pacific Northwest. Mussels from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, sometimes labelled PEI, are excellent, as are Penn Cove mussels grown off Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state.

There are many species, but blue or Mediterranean mussels are the most common and delicious, both with fairly small (1.5 to 2.5 inches long), blue-black shells and ivory to coral-pink meat.

Mussels are easy to prepare. First, keep them cold and damp, but with plenty of air flow – they need to breathe and, ironically, do not want to be submerged in water. A good method is to put them in a colander set into a larger bowl and set a bag of ice on top, then put the whole arrangement in the refrigerator; use within two days, the sooner the better.

Cleaning farmed mussels generally means a simple rinse and a sort to make sure they’re all alive. Most of them will have tightly closed shells, but some may be “gaping”, meaning they are reacting to their environment or have died. Give any open mussels a tap or a gentle squeeze, which should prompt them to start to close; all you need to see is a slight movement. If they don’t react, pitch them.

Also get rid of any mussels that are smashed (but if the shells are simply cracked, keep them). Then comes the slightly tedious task, which is pulling off the byssus, or beard, a small length of what looks like black threads twisted together. This is the mussel’s attachment to the rocks or rope or whatever it was growing on. The byssus is not unsafe for diners, but it is unattractive.

To remove the byssus, grasp it with your thumb and forefinger or between your thumb and the blade of a paring knife and give a sharp tug toward the hinged end of the shell. Usually, it will release from the shell with one tug. If not, cut it off close to the shell with the paring knife.

Clean your mussels just before you are ready to cook, because once you yank off that byssus, the mussel may die, and you want to cook them while they are alive.

Steaming is the best way to cook mussels. Here we’ll talk about a classic stove-top method, but you can also steam mussels in the oven at high heat in a roasting pan or over an outdoor grill, corralled within a paella pan or Dutch oven.

When deciding how to spice mussels, think of creating “layers” of flavour within the dish: the aromatics, the cooking liquid, and the finishing touches. Start by gently sauteing your aromatics (onions, shallots, garlic, chillies, ginger, for example) to release their flavours. Then add a small amount of liquid, about one cup for up to three pounds of mussels, a bit more for larger batches. You want enough to provide a bunch of steam as well as a tasty broth, but not so much that you actually boil the mussels.

Whatever method, be sure your cooking vessel is large. You need to tumble the mussels around during cooking, and you can’t do that if your pot is filled to the brim. You also need a vessel with a lid, though aluminum foil can do the job.

Once your aromatics and liquid are boiling, add all the mussels at once, cover the pan, and let them steam, shaking the pot vigorously every 30 seconds or so. If you’re cooking more than a couple of pounds, open the pot and stir the mussels around for even cooking.

After around five minutes, most of the mussels should be cooked and open. If you see a lot still closed, continue cooking for another few seconds.

You also can remove the open ones and give the stubborn ones a final blast of steam. You will always have a handful that don’t open. Toss those out.

Transfer the mussels to serving bowls and then taste the broth. If it seems to lack concentrated flavour, simmer it for a few more minutes, then taste again. Mussels do provide a bit of their own salinity, so I usually add just a pinch of salt. A pat of butter can give the broth body.

Finish the dish with a shower of fresh herbs and serve with a side of grilled bread for dunking in the broth, and a big bowl for the empty shells, which will fill up fast.