Don’t be Afraid of Mussels

I write in defense of mussels, the stepchild of the shellfish world. I am not talking about the dreaded freshwater zebra mussels that are threatening our lakes here in the Berkshires, but the delectable marine blue mussel.

The French love them. You can’t walk a block in Paris without seeing a bistro with a “Moules” sign. For some reason though, Americans, who will happily pound down their weight in steamers and Littlenecks have been slow to warm to these succulent little morsels.

Many years ago I had a wonderful congregant, Gladys Brigham, whose father had been a Congregationalist missionary to the Middle East in the nineteenth century. He had gone to Bangor Theological Seminary, and the family still had a summer cottage on Isleboro, one of Maine’s most charming islands. When my children were still children Gladys invited us all to spend a few days there and she joined us for a couple of them. At low tide there were more mussels than you could shake a stick at, so I harvested a batch, cleaned and de-bearded them, and steamed them with a little garlic and white wine. “These are delicious,” opined Gladys, who was close to ninety, and had been coming to this very spot for the better part of the Twentieth Century. “I’ve never had a mussel before.” I was dumbfounded: “Why not?” “People here don’t eat them.”

I have a theory about this. First, mussels are subject to Red Tide (dinoflagellates), which is harmless to the mussel but contains toxins that can harm humans with paralytic shellfish poisoning. If back in the day Uncle Wendell got wicked sick from eating a mussel it might have put everybody off their feed for awhile. Today governments strictly monitor for toxins at fishing sites, so that is no longer a problem. And besides, clams are subject to Red Tide, too, so I don’t get it.

The other bad rap mussels get is that they are hard to clean, and it is true that if you harvest them yourself it is a bit of a chore to scrub them up, de-beard them, and scrape the barnacles off them. And if you are not careful, there will always be a closed one that is, in fact, just a shell full of mud and it will muddy your broth.

But the last few years I have been able to buy beautiful mussels from Prince Edward Island in the grocery store. These are fresh, clean, scrubbed and de-bearded, and need minimal handling. Just make sure that they are alive, discarding any whose shells have opened or are cracked. Give them a good rinse in cold water. I put them in a bowl and leave them in the sink with the water gently running for a while.

So get yourself some mussels. This is the best time of year for them, as the claim is that the best months to eat them end in “–ber,” and here we are in September with two more “–ber” months to go. And the best thing of all is that, although their flavor resembles that of the treasured lobster, they are cheap. My PEI mussels come in two pound mesh bags, and are often available for $2.49 a pound. I got some last week for $1.99 on sale. The lobsters in that tank nearby were $11.99. Tough decision? No.

There are many ways to treat a mussel, but I like them done with as little fanfare as possible (except when I make them Chinese style with garlic and fermented black beans, but that is another post for another day). Mussels contain a lot of water, so you don’t need to drown them when you cook them. Here’s a simple recipe similar to what the French call Moules Marinieres (they would use butter, reduce the broth, and add more butter at the end, but I like it this way):

2 lbs mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
½ yellow onion, chopped
2 tbs garlic, peeled and finely chopped
½ tsp crushed red pepper (optional)
½ cup dry white wine.
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Drain the rinsed mussels in a colander. You’ll want a wide pan with a tight lid. Heat the oil over medium heat, and cook the onion until soft. Toss in the garlic, crushed red pepper, and parsley. Then gently add the mussels (the shells will break if you’re hard on them.) Gently stir to mix, add the white wine and cover. Give the pan a gentle shake from time to time and start checking the mussels after about five minutes. If they are not opening turn the heat up a bit and cover again. They should all be open after ten minutes. You can serve them now, but I prefer to remove the mussels to a platter with a slotted spoon, and strain the broth through a sieve covered with cheesecloth to catch any sand. You can pour the broth over the mussels or serve it on the side (as I do). Enjoy.

Wine pairings: The French might drink Muscadet with them, and they wouldn’t be wrong. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc is always nice. When we were with our daughter in Provence I ordered mussels (albeit Provencal style with tomato) and she said “Try the Rose.” I did, and it was very good, so a dry Rose from the South of France works just fine. But don’t break the bank on cheap eats, any good dry white will do.

(Photo by R.L. FLoyd)

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