I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of mussels. I think other people would be too if they knew how delicious they can be. And how easy they are to cook. Also, how cheap they are ($2-$3 per lb.). And that farmed mussels are on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Best Choices list, so you don’t have to be paralyzed by fear at the seafood counter trying to figure out what the hell is okay to cook for dinner.
I’m here to tell you that blue mussels are okay. More than okay. They’re sustainable and delicious. That is, if you can train your attention away from the particulars of their anatomy, just scoop the whole thing into your mouth no questions asked. That’s how I got the kids to like them. Told them to close their eyes and then I shoved a mussel into each of their mouths. Granted, it took years for them to trust me enough to go along with it, but now we have a pair of mussel-lovers on our hands and I claim full credit.
Mussels are filter-feeders, which means they strain plankton and other organic matter out of the water. Farmed mussels, mostly from Prince Edward Island in Canada but also Maine, are raised in waters that have met approved international water quality standards and the whole process is managed in an ecologically safe way. Most cultured mussels are grown on ropes raised off the bottom so there’s minimal habitat disruption when harvesting. Because mussels don’t require any additional feed and don’t produce any waste, they don’t pollute their environment the way that, say, farmed salmon can. In fact, they can actually improve water quality. (For more information about farmed mussels, go here (read text in blue).
Wild mussels, when you can get them, are also a treat, but you need to be aware of red tide, blooms of tiny algae-like microorganisms, which contain toxins that accumulate in mussels’ bodies and can make you pretty sick. A red tide warning was just announced yesterday for the Cape. By the way, blue mussels are not to be confused with the highly endangered fresh-water mussels, which have been prized for their use in pearl cultivation rather than human consumption.
But let’s go back to how easy they are to cook. Really easy. You clean them, dump them into a pot of liquid, cover, bring to a simmer, and steam them for five minutes. It’s literally as simple as that. A classic preparation is to steam them in a white wine and herb bath and serve them alongside a big basket of fries, preferably with a hearty Belgian beer nearby. I’ve also had them served in the North End in a light tomatoey broth with basil. But last week, since I had a half a can of coconut milk in the fridge, I turned to my favorite Indian cookbook (have you bought it, yet?) and we had curry instead. We served it over rice one night, and the next in a big bowl with some kale tucked in there, a baguette handy for mopping up any remaining sauce.
Mussels in a Green Curry
The other great thing about mussels (and clams) is that they trick you into thinking you’re eating more than you actually are. Your brain registers the size of the shells, but the meat is actually only half that volume. When I see the big pile of empty shells I’ve just created, I feel psychologically full.
2 lb. mussels
¼ tsp. cumin
1 small tomato, seeded, diced small
½ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup mint leaves
1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
2 small green Serrano chiles, seeds removed
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1 cup canned coconut milk
Water, if necessary
Scrub the mussels well in cold water and pull off any beards (they look like strands of steel wool hanging out of the shells). If using wild (non-farmed) mussels, check for any decoys filled with mud. They’ll be heavier than the others and should open up and expose themselves when manhandled. You’ll want to identify these and toss them out before they end up in the pot and ruin everything.
In a food processor, grind the cumin, tomato, cilantro, mint, ginger, and chiles to a smooth paste. Or finely chop and mash with the back of a spoon. Set aside. Over medium flame, heat the oil in a large, wide pot that has a lid. Sauté the onion until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the green curry paste and sauté about 5 minutes more. Add the coconut milk and salt to taste. You may also want to add some water if your coconut milk is on the thick side, as mine was. I added somewhere between ¼-½ cup of water. Bring to a boil, then add the mussels, and reduce heat to low. Toss well, cover, and cook until all the mussels are open, about 5 minutes. Discard any mussels that haven’t opened. Serve over rice or in a big bowl with some crusty bread for mopping up the sauce. Serves 4.
Source: Adapted from 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: My quality of life has dramatically improved since I bought this book.
Like shellfish? Here's more: