Mussels are not a common dish that people cook at home. There’s a misconception that they are complicated to prepare. The truth is, you clean them and then steam them. Everything else is just fluff (adding flavors, salt and other ingredients). There are just a few considerations when making the dish your own.
Mussels are a type of bivalve mollusk. Depending on the variety, they can live in salt or fresh water. Most mussels are either dredged (dug out of the sandy mud) or cultivated on a rope until ready for harvest. PEI (Prince Edward Island) is one of the most common types. Mussels are usually available in grocery stores, but there are a few things to consider when selecting mussels.
Lightly tap the mussels together; they should then close tightly. Mussels that do not close tightly are already dead and should be discarded. I know, cooking them live sounds a little morbid, but the nervous system in bivalves is very simple and they don’t have pain responders. Trust me, you don’t want to know what happens if you cook and eat a dead mussel. You also want to toss any mussel that does not open during cooking, for the same reason.
The only other step before cooking is rinsing off the mussels and removing the beard. Most farm-raised mussels arrive in the store pretty clean. Some may have a slight seaweed-looking beard that allows them to attach to rocks in the wild, or the ropes where they are cultivated on farms. The beard is easy to remove with your fingers or a paring knife.
Flavorful liquid equals flavorful mussels. Use liquid to heat and create steam to cook the mussels. You can start with just about any type of liquid. Water will get the job done, but you can add you own unique flavor by finding the liquid that takes your dish in the direction you want it to go. White wine, beer and coconut milk are some of my favorites. Tomatoes work as a great flavor base and are full of tasty liquid. Keep your mind open to what you have around the kitchen and don’t hesitate to try new things.
Garlic, onions, herbs and spices build on the flavor of the liquid. There is no limit to the types of items you can add as aromatics. First consider what flavor profile you are adding with an aromatic. Many aromatics can build off each other, so try to balance sweet, salty and acidic. Acidity can come in many forms: lemon juice, lime juice, white wine, and vinegar are a few staple acidic items. Fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire, bacon and other cured meats are great ways to add saltiness while creating a flavor profile.
It always seems like I never have enough bread. If you don’t want to make your plate look ridiculous, start by serving three to five pieces of bread, but have plenty of backup. I have found that a “dry” toasting or grilling works best. The purpose of the bread is to soak up the sauce. Butter or fat on the bread will have the opposite effect, repelling the sauce. Put the bread into an oven, under a broiler, on a grill, in a toaster, or place into a dry sauté pan until you get a slight brown on each side.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ to 2 pounds mussels (keep refrigerated until you are ready to cook)
1 cup white wine
½ cup cream
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced (separate whites and green tops)
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
2 to 4 tablespoons cold butter
Salt and pepper to taste
3 to 5 slices of toasted baguette, Ciabatta or other toasted bread per person
Lightly wash mussels under running water and tap to ensure they close; discard any you suspect are dead. Remove beards, if present, just before cooking. Combine wine, cream, white onion slices, garlic and herbs in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add cleaned mussels and cover for 3 minutes; open and stir the mussels, than cover again for 1 to 3 minutes until all mussels have opened.
Remove mussels from liquid with a slotted spoon and place into a covered bowl or container to keep warm; reserve liquid in the pot. Discard any mussels that did not open. Return liquid to a simmer and add reserved sliced green onion tops. Cook until liquid reduces by half. Turn off heat and rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then whisk cold butter into liquid. Season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve the mussels in a bowl family-style, or plate individually. Pour sauce over the mussels. Serve with toasted slices of bread. Make sure you have extra bread for soaking up the sauce!
- Replace the wine with beer.
- Make a tomato-based sauce.
- Replace the cream, or all of the liquid, with coconut milk.
- Add a jalapeño pepper, chili, or red pepper flakes.
- Add ½ lime or lemon.
- Add chopped fresh herbs of your choice to the mussels or sauce at the end.