Suddenly, mussels are everywhere in my life.
Just a month ago, I gobbled up a bowl at the legendary Cliff House in San Francisco overlooking the raging Pacific Ocean. The black shells were intertwined with caramelized onions, swimming in a sauce laden with the Tunisian hot chili sauce called harissa and local Anchor Steam beer. Several planks of toasted herb bread weren't quite enough to sop up the briny, spicy sauce. I asked for more.
Weeks before that, I sampled mussels swathed in a lobster saffron sauce at a French bistro in Boyne City, Mich., with Lake Charlevoix shimmering before me. This bowlful was luxury personified, the inexpensive shellfish mingling with pricey companions.
There were buy-one-get-one-free frozen mussels in garlic and wine sauce from the grocery store (cheap, but a little fishy for my taste) and green-lipped New Zealand mussels at the Nantucket Bucket in Safety Harbor in a classic white wine sauce. And then I made them at home in coconut curry sauce, plus I tried out another batch piled with garlic-bread crumbs and baked on the half shell. (These were frozen, too, but tasted fresh.)
Like I said, mussels are everywhere.
Truly, mussels are the perfect meal for the way we live — and cook — now. Not too expensive (less than $6 a pound usually) and quick to prepare. All you need is a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, some aromatics and a liquid to steam them. It'll take about 7 minutes for a big pot of them to be ready for diners. Add bread to sop up the flavorful liquid, a green salad and you've got a dinner that's tasty and fun to eat. Plan on about 1 pound per person for a main dish.
Kid-friendly? Depends on your kid. A colleague who doesn't like mussels recently prepared them for her husband who adores them and was surprised when one of her 4-year-old twin daughters dove into the bowl with wild abandon. You never know until you try.
Flexing your mussels
When you purchase fresh mussels, they are alive. The shells might be slightly open, and if you tap them they will shut. Any that have cracked shells should be discarded. After they are cooked, any shells that don't open to reveal the meaty, orange morsels inside should be tossed as well. They are potentially bad, and you don't want to risk getting sick.
Most recipes call for cleaning the mussels and pulling off the "byssus" — beard — before cooking. Since about 90 percent of the world's mussels are farm-raised, you'll find them mostly beardless. I bought 3 pounds of Canadian mussels last week from I.C. Sharks in St. Petersburg and not one had a stringy byssus that needed removing, plus every one opened. (They were $5.99 a pound.)
To clean mussels, place in a bowl of cold water with a bit of flour and they will spit out any sand. Rinse well before cooking. You may still get a few bits of grit. I think of it as Mother Nature's surprise. If you aren't cooking right away, store in the refrigerator in a bowl of water or an open plastic bag to let air circulate. Prepare within a day of purchasing.
According to environmental experts, including scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, farm-raised mussels are among the most sustainable of cultured seafood. They are ocean-friendly and don't impact the environment negatively. Because they are filter feeders, they suck in microscopic particles, plants and nutrients, which cleans the water where they are grown.
They are grown on suspended ropes, in mesh bags or in cages that don't rest on the ocean floor. This helps prevent habitat destruction, according to New England Aquarium experts.
Mussels have their own subtle taste, slightly salty and even reminiscent of a mushroom. They have what the Japanese call umami, a sixth taste that describes something savory and a bit meaty. They will also be chewy, more like a clam than a scallop.
They pair well with all sorts of flavors, most classically white wine, garlic, shallots, tarragon and butter. In the Normandy region of France, you'll find this preparation on menus labeled moules marinieres, and in Spain, you'll often dig out tender mussels in the paella pot. They also play nicely with spicy ingredients, including those you find in Thai and Indian dishes.
When you are cooking mussels at home, the most important thing is not to overcook them, which will toughen the meat. Put just enough liquid in a big pot with a lid to steam the mussels. Too much liquid will boil the shellfish. That's too severe a cooking method for the mussels, which will turn to tire tread under the weight of that roiling heat.
As the mussels open, they give off their own salty liquid to mingle with the flavors you've put in the pot. They are simply prepared but not what I call simple food.
I find it quite sophisticated to nosh a bowl of steaming mussels, the smell of garlic, wine and herbs tickling my nose. A glass of white wine, or maybe even a local craft beer, to accompany.
Simple maybe, but divinely so.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.