Not unlike their bivalve cousin, the oyster, mussels are exceedingly delicious and a surprisingly sustainable seafood option. While not as dignified and high culture as the oyster, the mussel is part of the bivalvia mollusca family (like the clam) and exist in both freshwater and seawater and are commonly consumed smoked, boiled, steamed, roasted, barbecued or fried in butter. Sure there are bad mussels out there (I personally have had a dark night of the soul with one of them) but as long as you know a few rules and practice a certain amount of caution, you are more likely to get sick from a jar of peanut butter than a fresh mussel.
Safety is one thing, but with most seafood being a decidedly unsustainable luxury these days, it is refreshing to learn that mussels are almost always farmed sustainably and they naturally filter the water they are cultivated in (think of them as shelled Britta filters). While not all mussels are palatable to humans (the ones we dont eat the birds and other marine life will certainly enjoy) at least 17 varieties are cultivated for human consumption, with the most common being the Mytilus edulis, M. galloprovincialis, M. trossellus and Perna canaliculus (don’t expect to get anything but blank stares from the fish monger when you ask for them by their Latin name).
As Francis Lam remarked in a piece he wrote on the subject of mussels he wrote for Salon.com, ” it’s time for mussels to get shown a little love.” Because of their hard shell and the innate fear of poisoning yourself, and your family, the mussel can seem like an intimidating proposition. But fear not. With a minor attention to detail and some consumer savvy, you too can be eating a fast, cheap, and sustainable dinner.
To Market, to Market:
When purchasing mussels make absolutely certain that what you are getting are as fresh as possible (more than 2 or 3 days out of the water is a bit too vintage for safe eating). Make sure that your mussels are free of cracks, breaks, or other openings in the shell (if the shell is open, the mussel is more than likely dead and in some state of decay this is one of the things that will make you sick).
Remember mussels should be alive until the moment they are cooked (see above) and storing them in a bowl of water or enclosed in a plastic bag will most certainly lead them to an early demise. Make sure they remain refrigerated until you are ready to use them. The best home for them is in a bowl covered with a damp towel (so they don’t dry out) in the fridge.
Cleaning the Bivalves:
Cleaning a mussel is easier than you would assume. Most of the time you just need a little cold water and sometimes a light vegetable brush to rid the mussel of dirt or the occasional mussel beard.
Cooking the Mussels:
Essentially, whether you are baking them, barbecuing them, or simply steaming them, mussels are cooked once they are sufficiently hot enough to open on their own. This usually takes no more than a few minutes (depending on the cooking method). If a mussel doesn’t open, don’t fuss with it, just throw it out and assume it wasn’t meant to be.
Here is an exceedingly easy and reliable mussel recipe from the cookbook La Cucina enjoy!
Crostini with Mussels from La Cucina
For the crostini:
8 slices stale peasant-style bread
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
For the mussels:
2 pounds mussels
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 diavolillo (hot chili pepper such as Thai bird chili or red serrano)
2 bay leaves
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1) Heat an inch of olive oil in a high-sided pan. Dampen the slices of bread in the vinegar; let dry for several minutes on a clean cloth. Fry the bread until golden brown and crunchy. Remove them with a slotted spoon, drain, and set aside on dry paper towels.
2) Clean the mussels, removing the beards, scraping them, and rinsing under running water. Put them in a covered pot and cook them over high heat until they open. Drain the mussels, preserving the liquid and discarding the shells.
3) Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and sautι the garlic and diavolillo. Add the mussels, a cup of their liquid (add water as needed to make a cup of liquid), and bay leaves; cook 5 minutes, then add the wine. As soon as the liquid has evaporated add the parsley.
4) Arrange the bread on individual plates, and pour over each a ladleful of mussels with their cooking liquid and serve.