If there’s a shellfish I am passionate about besides the sea-urchin it’s the delectable mussel. You can cook mussels in a multitude of ways: soup, bisque, stir-fry, stew, stuffed, velouté, clafoutis, terrine & paté, salad, omelet, pasta & rice dishes and much more. I have even made a type of country rye bread which was studded with mussels & sun-dried eggplant.
And like the clams & cockles recipe I will post in a couple of days, it is always the simplest way that wins most hearts: steamed with a little garlic, dry white wine, thyme and little else. A nice loaf of rustic bread completes the ecstasy.
The life of a mussel is by any means quite extraordinary: the blue mussel is a filter feeder, continually straining plankton from the water. An average sized mussel (say a 2½ inch) processes more than 15 gallons of water per day and are widely used for monitoring pollution! Since wild mussel harvests have been in decline aquaculture produces nearly all the mussels sold commercially (farmed mussels are generally cleaner and sustainable). A little known story tells us that during the second World War mussels were commonly served in diners throughout the US. This was due to the unavailability of red meat related to wartime rationing.
Mussels are a good source of selenium, vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid, iron, calcium and omega 3 polyunsaturates. The eating season for mussels is September through to March though the length of the season depends on the sea temperature (in Europe wild mussels are best harvested in the spring and fall.) Blue mussels can be found in cold and warm waters all over the world particularly along the northern Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Green-lipped mussels are native to the waters of New Zealand and surrounding areas. I used to fly in fresh NZ mussels to Sydney so great was the quality of their flesh and taste. Here in Ireland, blue mussels are boiled and seasoned with vinegar, with the juice served as a supplementary hot drink. Although mussels are valued as food, mussel poisoning due to toxic planktonic organisms can be a danger along some coastlines. Which is why I always cook them in a pot first before I mix them with other ingredients, then check the stock. If it stinks, you have a bad one in the pack, but it’s rare.
Archaeological findings suggest that mussels have been used as a food for over 20,000 years. They have been cultivated in Europe since 1235 when Patrick Walton, an Irish sailor shipwrecked on the French coast, hung up nets in order to catch fish and found that mussels were sticking themselves to the poles supporting the nets.
I used to serve this in my Sydney eatery, cooked in an individual terracotta poelon. This dish has the distinction of killing several birds with one stone (so to speak) as it is simple to make, tasty & nutritious and will serve notice to your friends that you can produce an elegant course:
for 4 to 6 persons you will need 2 kg (4 pounds) of fresh mussels, about 6 cherry tomatoes per person, a knob of butter, 2 minced scallions, a small handful of chopped basil, same amount of flat parsley, also chopped up, 4 whole eggs, half a pint of double cream, 1 glass of dry white wine, 4 ounces of grated Parmesan (or Fontina) and 4 ounces of cubed chorizo, not too spicy. Salt & pepper to taste.
Wash and clean mussels thoroughly. In a large skillet, over medium heat, add the butter and cook the scallion for a few seconds, then add the mussels, the white wine and cover for 5 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally. When the mussels are cooked, remove shells, set aside and strain the cooking juice. Reduce the mussel juice till half is evaporated, and set aside to cool. Preheat oven at 180°C (th. 6). In a bowl, mix the eggs and cream together, season as you see fit, and add the chorizo, the basil & parsley. Add the mussel juice to this mix. In individual dishes arrange the mussels and the cherry tomatoes at the bottom. Add the mix and drop some of the grated cheese on each dish. Bake for 25 minutes or golden.
Thai Mussels & Sweet Potato Bisque:
a favorite of mine, works well particularly the day after a big boozy night, it absorbs well if you know what I mean… I make it with coconut cream as opposed to real cream found in most bisques.
For 4 to 6 persons you will need 2 kg fresh mussels (though one could use frozen mussel meat, but you’d lose the natural juices), 4 large sweet potatoes, washed and chopped roughly, 6 peeled garlic cloves, 1 leek, cut and chopped up, 1 fennel bulb, also cut up roughly, 6 ounces of tomato paste, 1 pint of chicken stock (bouillon cubes ok), 2 glasses of dry white wine, 2 8 ounces coconut cream cans, 4 Thai green chilies, cut up, a handful of cilantro, salt & pepper to taste.
Wash and clean mussels. In a large pot over medium heat, throw mussels in with the 2 glasses of wine, cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes or until opened up. Remove shells from most of them, keeping a few for garnishing and sieve the liquid carefully, set aside. I don’t use any fats in this dish, no need for it as the whole thing is going to be blended to a smooth finish.
In the same large pot (we recycle in this kitchen) add all the ingredients above except the few mussels in the shell and the cilantro. Mix well and bring it to a boil, reduce heat and simmer slowly for 1 hour. Blend well and garnish with mussels in shell and cilantro sprigs. I have often done a variation on this in which I use Jerusalem artichokes instead of sweet potatoes. Equally stunning!
A story tells of an Irishman shipwrecked on the western coast of France near La Rochelle who made a chance discovery that poles he erected in the mudflats to support nets for catching birds became a breeding ground for Mussels. So he drove in more stakes, closer together, and joined them with bundles of branches (‘bouches’) at low tide level and turned his hand to mytiliculture. The Mussels probably tasted better than the birds anyway! The process has been refined a little, but Mussels are still grown in France in virtually the same way on wooden hurdles called ‘bouchot’.
Spicy Squid & Mussels Stir-fry:
this stir-fry works incredibly well when these two delicacies are in the same dish. Peas in a pod, you might say.
For 4 to 6 persons you will need 2 kg of fresh mussels, 1 pound of clean squid (nowadays you can buy frozen squid tubes, already cleaned and skinned, ready to use – but check provenance to make sure it’s from sustainable aquaculture, and not from South East Asia, where they destroy mangroves to make room for these farms); half a pound of wild rice, 2 red onions, chopped up, 2 red bell peppers, de-seeded and cut into thick strips, 1 bunch of scallions, chopped up, the leaves of 2 Bok choy, chopped up roughly, 6 peeled garlic cloves, minced, 6 medium heat red chilies, de-seeded and chopped up, a dash of Tamari sauce (Japanese soy sauce), some olive oil, salt & pepper to taste.
First cook wild rice till fluffy, this should take 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and set aside. While rice cooks, clean, de-beard and cook the mussels in a pot (and keep the juices for a soup or a sauce, it can freeze well), remove the mussels from the pot and set aside, still in their shells. Cut the squid into strips. Pour some olive oil into a wok or large frying pan over a high flame and throw in the onions and the garlic closely followed by the bell peppers and the squid, stirring for 2 minutes, tops. Squid cooks easily, this should not be overcooked. Add the chilies, the rice then the Bok choy leaves, keep stirring for another 1 to 2 minutes, add a dash of Tamari sauce, stir well and toss in the chopped scallions at the end.
Moroccan Mussel Tagine:
if you like the delicately perfumed Moroccan tagines then this is the ticket. The combination of fresh mussels, garbanzo beans, potato, zucchini, eggplant and Raz el Hanout is simply divine (link shows you how to make your own).
This is a slow-cooked dish so you can actually survey the cooking while you chat and drink with your friends. Great dish for a dinner or poolside party. Make sure you soak the garbanzo beans the night before, rinse and drain the next day.
For 6 to 8 persons you will need 2 and a half kg of fresh mussels (5 pounds), 2 large zucchinis, cut into thick chunks, 2 eggplants, also cut into thick chunks, 200 (or 8 ounces) grams of dried garbanzo beans (you can buy those in a can but it won’t be as good), a pound of baby potatoes, 2 large onions, chopped roughly, 8 garlic cloves, chopped up, 2 ounces of dark green olives, the juice of 2 lemons, 2 pints of chicken stock (or vegetable) a pint of tomato passata, a dash of oliver oil, 1 full ounce of Raz el Hanout, salt & pepper to taste.
Clean and de-beard the mussels. Cook them as above, drain and sieve the juices. Remove one shell from the mussels, leaving one on, cover with cloth and set aside. In your tagine bottom, pour a tiny amount of olive oil and fry the onions until glassy, add the beans, the tomato passata and cover with 1 pint of chicken stock. Put the lid over a slow flame and cook for a good half hour then add the cut potatoes (about 1 inch thick) and the Raz el Hanout. Cook for another half hour adding the other pint of stock and the garlic. Beans should be almost done but not quite. Then add the egplant and zuchinni, olives plus the mussel juices and the lemon juice. Cook slowly for another half hour then add the mussels in half shell. Cook for a further 10 minutes. By then, hopefully you have not drunk your guests under the table, it’s time to eat!
Research published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism has shown that including garbanzo beans, specifically, in the diet significantly lowers both total and LDL “bad” cholesterol (Pittaway JK, Ahuga KD, et al.).