Mussels are cheap, versatile, and easy to cook. Delicious in coconut broth with lemongrass and lime wedges or in a Thai green curry sauce. Mussels are abundant in many parts of world. They are particularly revered in Belgium and France, where they are served with French fries moules et frites.
There are a variety of mussel species, but the one we are most familiar with is the marine blue mussel, or Mytilus edulis, which has a blue-black asymmetrical oval shell. Freshwater mussels have a large organ called a foot that helps propel them through sand, silt, or gravel. Marine mussels have a smaller foot because they tend to attach themselves to rocks, ropes, or whatever is at hand with their byssus, or beard.
All mussels are filter feeders, living on plankton and other tiny sea creatures floating around. Some species of mussels prefer salt marshes and quiet bays, while others thrive on rocks in pounding surf. (Their strategy of clumping together enables the interior mussels to stay wet during low tides.)
Most of the mussels we eat are farmed, and about 80 percent of North American cultured mussels are from Prince Edward Island in Canada. You often see this indicated on menus as PEI mussels. In my opinion, mussels from France taste better. They serve a different variety there which is no longer available in the United States.
Preparation of mussels varies around the world. In Turkey they are covered with flour and fried or served cold with rice. In China, they are cooked with garlic and fermented black beans. New Zealand has its own species, known as the green-lipped mussel, which is delicious with a chili-spiced vinaigrette.
It is very important that mussels be super-fresh and alive before preparing them. They need to be well scrubbed and have the beard removed just before cooking. Try to cook them the day they are purchased or store them in a refrigerator in a bowl with a wet towel over it. Do not store them in water or suffocate them in a plastic bag. Mussels, as well as quahogs, need to breathe!
Because they cook so quickly, it is best to prepare them in a shallow pan, only three-quarters full, so they cook evenly and have room to open. They will tolerate a little bit of overcooking but not much. It is best to remove the opened ones as you are cooking and set them aside.
Mussels can be steamed, smoked, grilled, boiled, or fried. Some say you can eat mussels raw but I have not seen anyone eat raw mussels in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. They are an excellent source of selenium and vitamin B12 and a good source of zinc and folate. Although most of the mussels we eat are cultivated and their water quality closely monitored, it is important to remember that they are filter feeders. In other words, they can retain toxins that pass through them. This is why every mesh bag of mussels sold wholesale to seafood shops and retail to consumers has a tag indicating the who, what, when, and where of their harvesting. Restaurants save these tags so that if some unfortunate customer were to develop a tummy ache, the source could be easily traced.
One of the reasons mussels are so economical is the fact that they can be harvested at 20 months of age. Other shellfish and mollusks take years, the oyster, for example, which takes about seven, or clams, four to five. You can harvest your own mussels, provided you check with a marine biologist about the safety of the locality and are careful to get mussels that are still partially submerged by waves at low tide, but it's easier to just buy mussels from a reputable source.
Mussels are a fun food to serve at informal gatherings. Quick to cook, versatile and compatible with all kinds of herbs and spices, and very economical. The briny smell fills the air and everyone is encouraged to get their hands dirty, dunk pieces of bread into the broth, and pass that bottle of wine.
Moules Brule-doigts a la Charentaise
Simply cooked in a hot cast iron black frying pan then sprinkled with black pepper, is the way many housewives in the region of Charente, France, prepare mussels. When you pick them hot out of the pan, their hot shells will indeed burn your fingers.
Serves four as an appetizer, two as a main course.
Mussels With Sorrel Sauce
Serves four as a first course.
This recipe is adapted from James Peterson"s Fish and Shellfish. Sorrel has a natural affinity with seafood, especially shellfish.
Linguine with Mussels, Garlic, and Fennel
Serves four as a first course.
Adapted from On Top of Spaghetti by Johanne Killeen and George Germon of Al Forno restaurant in Providence, R.I.
Source modified from: East Hampton Star "Musseling Up - The quick,
versatile, economical bivalve - hold the sand" by Laura Donnelly 05/19/2009
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