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How to Cook Mussels

For effortless dinners, turn to this sustainable, affordable, quick-cooking shellfish.

February/March 2015 Issue
Photos: Scott Phillips
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My work as a chef, author, and speaker is all about sustainable seafood. It’s not always an easy thing to talk about—there are so many considerations when choosing what to eat for dinner. Mussels make it a little easier; they’re pretty much perfect, ecologically speaking. They filter and eat microscopic plants from the water around them, so they don’t require feed and actually leave the surrounding water cleaner. Plus, they’re usually farmed on ropes that hang from rafts or are strung between buoys, which means they don’t impact the ocean floor.

See a Moveable Feast episode clip on how mussels are farmed.

All of that wouldn’t be so exciting if mussels weren’t also delicious—plump and tender, with a sweet, briny flavor. What’s more, they’re easy to find in supermarkets, taste great with just about any seasoning in your pantry, and cook in 10 minutes or less so that you actually have time to savor your meal, for a Sunday feeling on Tuesday night.

Mussels have a conveniently long shelf life. They can be refrigerated for up to two weeks after they’re harvested, and grocery stores are required to share when that was, as well as where. Next time you’re at the fish counter, just ask. You can also ask if there are fresher ones in back. Once you bring them home, spread them in a pan with damp paper towels above and below, and you should have all week to cook them.

There’s not a lot of prep work for mussels. Because they’re suspended in the water, they contain very little grit. All they usually need is a good scrub under cold water. This also gives you a chance to inspect them, discard any that are open, and remove any beards. Steaming is the most common way to cook them. You can use water, which will turn into a savory broth as the mussels open and release their juices, but for even more oomph, you can steam them in wine, beer, or broth, and add aromatics. Even though the mussels cook in 5 to 10 minutes, they’ll soak up the flavor of whatever they’re cooked in, and you’ll be left with a tasty broth perfect for sopping up with crusty bread.

Try roasting mussels for a different flavor. Dry heat concentrates their flavor, but they stay super juicy. Here, too, you can add aromatics, or not. This method also cooks them in under 10 minutes, giving you plenty of time for a leisurely dinner. And that’s the joy of mussels: You have to slow down and eat them one by one. So go ahead, savor them.

Don’t fear the beard

Mussels have what’s called a byssal thread, or beard. It’s a group of fibers that grow from between their shells and connect them to rocks or ropes. These beards are not edible, and in the past, debearding mussels made preparation tedious. Fortunately, most mussel farmers are now debearding them before sending them to market, but if you see any brown threads poking out from a mussel shell, simply grasp them between your thumb and forefinger, and pull.


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