Europeans love mussels, and each country’s preparation is specific to its traditional flavors and foods. When we visited Ireland, we found “Drunken Mussels” on the menu, steamed, of course, in Guinness beer. In Germany, they steam mussels in German beer but add a bit of German mustard to the sauce. The Italians steam mussels in wine but add a good dose of tomatoes and crushed red pepper to their recipes, yielding a spicier taste; the French add heavy cream and serve their mussels with a side of frits. “Mussels in Sailor Sauce” is a staple of Northwestern Spain, where the unusual ingredient is jalapeños; and in Norway they broil mussels and serve them with dill butter. Chefs are getting quite creative in preparing steamed mussels—I have eaten them with a variety of ingredients added to the sauce including chorizo, jalapeños, beer, heavy cream, coconut milk, and curry. My husband and I have come to love mussels as much as the Europeans, but we prefer a French style preparation minus the heavy cream.
There are several species of mussels, the most abundant is the blue or common mussel, which is found along the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts. Its shell is a dark blue in color, and it is about two to three inches in length. Blue mussels are in season winter and spring and prized for their intense flavor.
Green-lipped mussels are imported from New Zealand, which is why they are often called New Zealand green mussels. This variety is three to four inches in length and has a bright green shell. Mediterranean mussels have a wide shell and plump meat. They are in season summer and fall. P.E.I. mussels are raised off the coast of Prince Edward Island, which is north of Nova Scotia. With a sweet flavor and plump, tender meat, some mussel connoisseurs consider P.E.I. mussels the best. P.E.I. mussels are the most common variety in North America. Just like other fish, mussels are farmed. Some mussel aficionados prefer rope-grown mussels. The advantage to this method is that the mussels never touch the ocean floor and, therefore, absorb less grit into their shells. Ropes attached to poles drilled into the floor of the ocean hang down into the water. Mussels grow along these ropes. They are harvested by hand or mussel-collecting machines. When I have a choice about which type of mussel I am going to purchase, I buy P.E.I. mussels. These days with all the chaos in the supply chain, we often don’t have a choice about what we purchase. We can go to the store with a shopping list but sometimes have to buy whatever is available. Last week my husband went shopping at Cosco and came home—quite proud of himself, I might add—with a five-pound package of mussels. “They had mussels today, so I bought some,” he gloated. I looked at his purchase. “That’s five pounds. We can’t eat all that.” I had to get creative. With food prices soaring, you don’t want anything to go waste. I made the following recipe, Mussels in a White Wine Sauce, and the second day made a mussel bisque. If you happen to shop at Cosco and come upon a five-pound bag of mussels, don’t worry. You can make something with your leftovers.
Following is the recipe I prepared on the first day. We are empty nesters, so we ate about half of what this recipe yields. I put the leftovers in a covered, Tupperware® container, both the broth and the shells, and, of course, refrigerated it. The second day I made Mussel Bisque. I also include that recipe. My husband loved my Mussels in a White Wine Sauce but thought the bisque was to die for.
Mussels in a White Wine Sauce Serves 4
5 pounds mussels 1/3 cup flour 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 ½ cups shallots, chopped (about 5 to 8) 2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 10 to 12 cloves) 1 cup canned plum tomatoes, drained (2 4.5-ounce cans) ½ teaspoon saffron threads 1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped 1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves 2 cups white wine 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a large bowl, place mussels with 2 quarts of water and flour and soak for 30 minutes, or until the mussels expel any dirt that has settled inside. Place the shells under a slow stream of running water. Using a stiff brush, scrub the shells. Drain mussels and remove beards. Using your fingers, gently pull the beards from the mussel. If the beard is stubborn and is difficult to remove, a pair of pliers works nicely. In a large stockpot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté for 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for 3 more minutes, or until shallots are translucent. Add tomatoes, saffron, parsley, thyme, wine, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add mussels, stir, cover the pot, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mussels are opened. Discard any mussels that do not open. Pour the mussels and the sauce into a large bowl and serve hot.
To serve: Serve with crusty bread for dipping in the broth; or if you want to eat them French style, serve with a side of frits.
Shopping for mussels: Look for clean, whole shells that have not been chipped, broken, or smashed. Good mussels should look wet and smell like the ocean—salty and clean. If they smell bad, pass. Shells should be tightly closed and never open. A gaping shell means the animal is dead. Ask the fishmonger to pack shellfish on ice for the ride home. It is best to buy mussels the same day you plan to use them.
Storing fresh mussels: Mussels need to be kept cold and moist until they are cooked, but they also need to breathe. Once home, remove them from the package and place them in a large bowl. Cover with a wet paper towel and refrigerate until ready to use.
Cleaning fresh mussels: Frozen mussels are usually cleaned before freezing. If you are buying fresh mussels, they need to be cleaned before cooking. Fill a large bowl with cold water and a 1/3 cup of flour. Add the mussels and soak them about 30 minutes. They will take in fresh water and expel any dirt that’s settled inside. Using a stiff brush, place mussels under a slow steam of cold water and scrub the shells. Each mussel has a beard, the stringy group of fibers located between the shells, which must be removed. Gently pull the fibers from the mussel. If the beard is stubborn and difficult to remove, a pair of pliers works nicely.
Tips on eating mussels: If the shells of mussels do not open after cooking, discard them. They are not safe to eat.
Mussel Bisque Serves 2
If you have leftovers from the above recipe and want to make a bisque, do so the following day. It is not advisable to keep leftover shellfish any longer. Depending upon the amount of leftovers you have, you may need to adjust the amount of Crème fraiche, heavy cream, and sherry you add to your bisque. Making mussel bisque is super simple.
Leftover mussels and broth 4 tablespoons crème fraiche 1 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon sherry
Remove mussels from broth and set aside. Separate mussels from their shells, discard shells and any mussels that did not open. Set mussel meat aside. In a food processor, place leftover broth and process to a purée. In a kettle, place puréed broth over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add crème fraiche, heavy cream, and sherry and stir to combine. Add mussels and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until mussels are heated through.
To serve: Serve with a salad and crusty bread for dipping in the bisque.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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