We get it. Mussels just look…. complicated. Much like other bivalves (oysters and clams, to name the big-hitters), they’re mired in a perceived element of risk- a kind of mollusc roulette, where every fourth shell you reach for could have you in some kind of gastro-intestinal hell-hole before the night is out. Everyone knows someone that knows someone that’s had a dodgy oyster, but in reality the two bottles of white plonk they consumed with it will have left them feeling less than healthy when morning comes, too.
So, I urge you to shed your prejudices, because bivalves are going to save the world*, and with that in mind, you should probably learn to get comfortable prepping and cooking the little gems.
MUSSELS- A ROUGH GUIDE
- Buy rope grown mussels- far more sustainable than the intensively farmed alternatives- from somewhere reputable. A good fishmonger (check their EHO rating) is preferable to a supermarket, but a supermarket fish counter is generally a safe bet too. You’re looking for about 500g per person, which looks like a lot, but believe me- you’ll get through them.
- Eat them on the day you buy them, or at an absolute push, the following one. When storing, make sure they can breathe. Loosely wrap them in newspaper to spare your fridge, but ensure the top is kept open.
- Once ready to prepare, empty them gently into a sink or colander. Rinse them very thoroughly with cold water, and get a system going: whack on the radio, and don’t rush. It won’t take long, but it’s quite a relaxing process if you allow yourself to sink into it.
- Take each mussel, and tap it firmly if it hasn’t already closed itself after being showered in cold water. Discard any that don’t shut, are broken or chipped, or feel bizarrely heavy when compared with a similar-sized one- it’s likely to be full of sand, which doesn’t do your dinner many favours.
- Remove any ‘beard’ by gently tugging at it (which can feel slightly barbaric, but you really don’t want to be eating it, believe me), and chip off any offensively large barnacles. You don’t have to be particularly precious with the latter.
- Once you’ve made your way through your horde, give them a final rinse. Any of the rejects can go into your food bin- I would recommend putting them into an outside one, unless you’re particularly fond of the smell of rotting fish.. it cranks up quite dramatically.
And a recipe… of sorts
To help demystify mussels even further, we’re not going to give you a proper recipe, because you don’t need one. They’re essentially peasant food, and don’t need over complicating. They’re also great for a fridge forage, and by-and-large work with most flavour profiles you can throw at them. But to nudge you along the way, work to the following:
Butter. A healthy knob of the stuff.
Something to flavour the butter: think delicate slices of fennel, or celeriac. Certainly a clove of garlic. Perhaps n’duja? Chilli & lemongrass work well. Banana shallots, halved, and shaken gently until golden. Thyme works nicely, especially if you throw in a little pancetta or streaky bacon. The world is your oyster (pun entirely intended here).
Whatever you do, leave it to get to know itself for a few minutes. If you’ve used anything with a fatty element (pancetta or bacon, etc) then make sure this has rendered nicely.
Mussels, obviously: prepped as above, and tossed in your flavoured butter for a couple of minutes,
Liquid: Cider is a safe (and glorious) bet. Coconut milk, with a little fish sauce & lime juice, works well if you’ve gone for a more aromatic beginning. White wine or dry sherry. You get the point.
Crank up the heat under your pan, and pour in liquid- you’ll need a decent glug of it, whatever it is. Allow it to bubble away rapidly for a minute, before adding in your mussels, shaking the pan gently and whacking on a lid.
Turn the heat down a smidge, and leave the mussels to steam. It will take about three minutes, and you’ll need to check that the shells have opened up entirely. Don’t boil them to death- they deserve better than that.
A finisher: Good double cream stirred through the end (once off the heat, but still in the pan) for both white wine and cider, but you can spare that step if you’re looking for something less rich (though I’d like to press its cause here- it’s what I would do).
A final squeeze of lime juice can help with your coconut version- this incarnation often takes more tweaking at the end to balance the flavours, so get a spoon ready to work out what it needs. Fish sauce is your friend, and sometimes a tiny sprinkling of brown or palm sugar dissolved into the liquor can help, too.
Herbs: Coconut milk calls for coriander or basil (preferably Thai, but don’t lose sleep over it), whereas any other soft herb- traditional parsley, or perhaps dill if you’re a fan of aniseed- adds a good pop of colour and iron tang to the dish,
Crusty bread. Frites. Both of them. Double-carbing is imperative here.
It goes without saying that a crisp local cider or decent white wine doesn’t hurt to have in arm’s reach, either.
I mentioned flippantly at the beginning something about bivalves saving the planet… whilst this might have been a slight exaggeration, there really is a lot to be said for opting for mussels, whelks, clams et. al. over a fish & chip supper. It’s no secret that our relentless dredging of the seas to feed ourselves is wreaking havoc on the environment, and our ability to ignore that impact is rapidly decreasing. Put simply? We need to create new eating habits. We all know the headlines- less meat, better meat, seasonal food, local food, etc. etc. Hidden in amongst all of that is ‘EAT BIVALVE MOLLUSCS.’ The TL;DR on them is simply this- they don’t require ‘feeding’ in their farming, their harvesting is lower impact than anything else (particularly for rope-grown varieties), and they’re far more locally available than most of the fish flooding our markets (most our shellfish, for instance, comes from east Asia). But here’s a link to a great piece with a little more detail:
… which is obviously from The Guardian, because what else would you expect from a hipster restaurant in an underpass?
A personal favourite read on molluscs (a niche category, admittedly) is the beautifully witty ‘Consider The Oyster’ by one of my all time favourite food writers, MFK Fisher.
And with that, I shall leave you to your de-bearding…!