I recently cooked mussels for the very first time. I know, why did it take me so long to make mussels at home? I order them a lot when I’m eating out and if they’re done well, there is nothing better. I suppose I was put off by all the dire information about mussels in my cookbooks. “They have to be alive when you cook them. You have to make sure you clean them really, really well. You have to debeard them” (a word that wasn’t in my vocabulary, nor did I want it to be).
It turns out that farm-raised mussels come already fairly clean and debearded. They just need a quick rinse and scrub before cooking. As for the dead ones, they are easy to spot — just chuck any mussels with open or broken shells while washing. I bought 2 pounds for the two of us, as the cookbooks advised, but was worried after throwing out about a quarter of them that we wouldn’t have enough for a decent meal. Turns out there were plenty, since the mussels were big and meaty. They were cheap, too, much cheaper than in restaurants.
I wasn’t the only one who felt trepidatious about the mussels. When I told my husband what we were having for dinner, his response was, “Mussels? Really?” Guess who gobbled up more than me?
It turns out that mussels are at their best in winter and early spring, so this is probably not the greatest time of year to buy them. Still, the farm-raised mussels we ate were large, chewy and had a slightly sweet, briny flavor — just as they should be. So I suppose there is not much risk in buying them “off-season” if they are from the farm. According to Mark Bittman, they can be stored in a bowl in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days — no need to store in water or on ice or anything complicated like that.
In the case of mussels, it’s better to buy farm-raised than wild-caught, not only because they are free of muck and beards, but also because this is one case where farming is ecologically sounder than fishing. According to epicurious.com:
Farmed mollusks such as clams, oysters, mussels, and bay scallops offer one of the least ecologically harmful choices, according to Environmental Defense: They require no feed because they strain plankton out of the water, which in turn helps filter the surrounding waters, sometimes improving water quality. Plus, harvesting methods such as ropes, nets, and rafts do little habitat damage.
There are several ways to cook mussels, but for my first try I went the classic route and steamed them. Mussels are insanely easy to cook. They take only a couple of minutes, and you know they’re done because they all open. (Throw away any that stay closed; they were probably dead to begin with.)
Because mussels exude liquid when cooking, not much more is needed for the pan. Add some flavorful elements and use the steaming liquid as a sauce when the mussels are cooked. Wine is classic, but this time I decided to go with a more Indian flavor profile.
I sauteed onion, garlic and ginger in olive oil until golden. I added chopped tomato, crumbled dried red chile, paprika and curry powder, and sauteed a little longer, until the tomato began to break down. Then I added just about ¼ cup chicken stock and brought it to a simmer. I added the mussels, covered the pan, and let them steam for about 4 minutes, until the shells opened. I scooped them into a bowl and put out another bowl for the shells, and we had an easy, fast dinner.
I certainly won’t be afraid of mussels anymore.