Twenty-five years ago, most Americans ignored the very existence of mussels. Today, this briny bivalve turns up at the most fashionable restaurants and is commonly available at supermarkets. They have yet to achieve the status they have in Belgium, however, where steamed mussels and french fries are as popular as cheeseburgers are here.
Tasty, nutritious, and cheap, this black-shelled beauty is certainly worth the attention it is starting to get, probably as a result of being extensively cultivated. In fact, musselswere one of the first seafoods to be "farmed." As early as 500 B.C., they were raised on branches submerged beneath piers. Today, they are grown on long ropes suspended from rafts. Cultivated mussels have the advantage over their wild cousins of being relatively free of sand. Occasionally, mussels contain tiny pearls, which are perfectly harmless if swallowed, but are annoying to eat.
When buying mussels, look for shellfish with a fresh ocean smell and tightly closed shells. (It's normal for a few shells to be gapped, but these should close when the bivalve is tapped.) Avoid any with cracked shells or shells that fail to close after 30 seconds when tapped. The meat of the mussel can range in color from bright orange to pale tan. Although this is a function of the mussel's diet, not freshness or quality, the former are more attractive.
Mussels are relatively perishable. Try to buy them the day you plan to cook them. Store them on ice or at the bottom of the refrigerator in an unsealed plastic bag (mussels will suffocate in a sealed container). Figure on one pound in the shell per person.
To prepare mussels for cooking, scrub the shells with a stiff brush, scraping off any barnacles with the back of a knife. Pull out the tuft of black threads at the "hinge" where the shells meet. To do this, pinch the threads between the back of a knife and your thumb, then firmly twist the blade.
The first step to cooking mussels is to steam them open in wine (or cider or beer) for 4 or 5 minutes with aromatic vegetables such as shallots, garlic or onions, peppercorns and herbs. Mussels steamed this way are called moules marinie`re (seaman style) in French and are a delicacy in their own right. Shake the pot or stir the mussels a few times during steaming to release the ones pinned shut on the bottom. Save the mussel broth for soups or sauces: strain it through a cheesecloth, leaving the silty dregs in the pot.
For fancier dishes, mussels are sometimes "bearded." Contrary to popular belief, bearding is not removing the fibers at the hinge of the shell but rather the lacy fringe encircling the oval body of animal. Simply pull it off. At the same time, check the inside of the mussel at the base of the siphon, for any threads that may have escaped your prying fingers.
When serving mussels whole, be sure to provide a bowl for the empty shells.
MOULES MARINIERE (Mussels Steamed in Wine) (6 appetizer servings)
Imagine for a moment that you're at a waterfront cafe in the coastal French town of Dieppe. Order the house specialty and you will probably receive a huge bowl of the tiny, tender local mussels steamed in wine and herbs. You would pry one mussel from its shells with your fingers and use the empty shells as tongs to pluck out the remaining shellfish. When you had finished, you would use a half mussel shell to spoon up the broth. You would have crisp French bread to eat and tart muscadet wine to drink. You might think you had died and gone to heaven.
Approximately 1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Generous pinch of thyme
3 pounds mussels, cleaned
Place 1/2 inch of wine in a large pot with the remaining ingredients and bring to a rolling boil. Add the mussels and tightly cover the pot. Cook over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the shells just open, shaking the pan from time to time to free the shellfish pinned shut on the bottom. Serve at once, providing an empty bowl for the empty shells.
Per serving: 99 calories, 9 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, .3 gm saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 241 mg sodium.
MUSSELS WITH CILANTRO AND CHILIES (8 servings)
When I was a student in Paris, we would broil mussels with garlic-parsley butter to make a poor man's version of escargots a la bourguignon. This recipe uses the same technique, but the butter is flavored with chilies and fresh cilantro.
3 pounds mussels, steamed open
FOR THE CILANTRO BUTTER:
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup fresh cilantro (coriander), chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 jalapeno or serrano chili, or to taste)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 2 cups kosher salt for lining the baking dish (optional)
Steam the mussels open. Meanwhile, cream the butter in a mixer or with a wooden spoon. Mince the cilantro, scallion and garlic. Seed and mince the chili. Beat the flavorings into the butter, adding salt and pepper to taste.
Remove the mussels from the shells, reserving half the shells (the prettiest ones). Arrange these shells on an oven-proof baking dish spread with 1/4 inch of kosher salt. (The salt keeps the shells from tipping.) Place one or two mussels in each shell, and top each with a spoonful of cilantro butter. The mussels can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage, and refrigerated.
Preheat the broiler. Just before serving, cook the mussels for 1 to 2 minutes, or until hot and bubbling. (Alternatively, the mussels can be baked in a hot oven.) Serve at once.
Per serving: 159 calories, 7 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 8 gm saturated fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 164 mg sodium.
MOUCLADE VENDEENNE (Mussels Vende Style) (4 servings)
The Vendee is a region in Brittany famed for its shellfish, especially its mussels. There are numerous versions of mouclade -- this one contains onions and curry.
3 pounds mussels, steamed open
1 cup mussel-steaming liquid
FOR THE SAUCE:
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons good curry powder
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste
Steam the mussels open. When cooked, let the mussels cool in the shells. Pour off 1 cup broth and strain it through cheesecloth.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan and saute' the onions, garlic and curry powder over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Off the heat whisk in the mussel broth and cream. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.
Beard the mussels, reserving the prettiest shells. Arrange the shells in concentric circles on a round platter. Place one or two mussels in each shell, and pour hot the sauce over them.
Per serving: 292 calories, 15 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 422 mg sodium.
CHICKEN WITH MUSSELS (4 servings)
Chicken lends itself well to sauces flavored with seafood. Chicken with crayfish, for example, is a classic dish from Lyons. This recipe marries chicken with mussels and saffron.
2 pounds mussels, steamed open
1 cup mussel-steaming liquid
3 1/2-pound chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Approximately 1 cup flour for dusting
2 to 3 tablespoons oil
1/4 cup dry white vermouth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon saffron
Steam the mussels open. Remove most of the mussels from the shells, leaving 8 in the shell. Reserve and strain 1 cup broth.
Cut the chicken into eight pieces. Season with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Heat the oil in a saute' pan over a high flame and lightly brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Pour off all the fat.
Add the vermouth and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula to dissolve any meat juices. Add the mussel broth, cream and saffron. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and gently simmer the chicken for 30 minutes, or until cooked. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface. Correct the seasoning. Just before serving, stir in the shelled mussels. Garnish the chicken with the mussels in the shells and serve at once.
Per serving: 568 calories, 36 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 37 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 175 mg cholesterol, 343 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.