Don’t tell Keith, but the mussel and I have been having an affair for years. Do you blame me? Is it possible to resist their briny flavor and luminescent shells? (Not for me. I’m like a bird — if it’s shiny or sparkly, I must touch it.) I remember my very first mussel, served to me by my mother when I was in grade school. Retrieving its melon-colored innards from within its dark casing was both fun and rewarding, and the taste was spectacular — faintly sweet and scented of the ocean.
You would think that since I’m obviously so very enamored with the mussel that I would indulge in it with as much frequency as I do cheese — that is to say, daily. Sadly, that’s not the case. In fact, I had never even had a mussel cross the threshold of my home, believe it or not, until recently. Cooking a bunch was one of the many things that I simply hadn’t gotten around to, even though for ages I’d been reading about how quick and easy it is to steam them. Not only that, I keep on encountering literature indicating that these little guys are an incredibly cheap meal to make, and one that has impressive results. In today’s economy, I can’t think of a better reason not to make something so high-impact for so few dollars.
Since I wasn’t able to get over to the fishmonger, I ended up purchasing my mussels at Whole Foods, where I picked up two two-pound bags for just over six bucks. Later I realized that four pounds of mussels seem like a lot more than they actually are; after each tender little treasure is removed from its shell, you’re left with considerably less weight.
I was the most nervous about prepping my mussels, as the last thing I wanted to do was spend my after-dinner hours hovering over a barf bin or groaning in the emergency room. Mark Bittman‘s advice was the most helpful:
“Discard any mussels with broken shells, or those that don’t close when tapped lightly against a hard surface (the counter or sink, another mussel, or a spoon); they’re dead.”
I separated my mussels into “reject” and “accept” piles, rapping the suspect shellfish against the ridge of a cast-iron pot. It was flat-out fascinating, watching their little lips close in super slow-motion. It’s a handy trick.
- Cleaning and priming are the most time-consuming part of mussel cookery, and a step that positively must not be skipped or rushed. Take the time to scrub each little shell uner cold water with a brush, removing any hairy beards and tough little barnacles you encounter.
- Soaking is not necessary. In fact, it’s a big no-no. If you do soak your shells, you’ll kill the mussels before you have a chance to steam them.
- Buy a baguette, taking care to pick an extra crunchy one. You’re going to want to sop up all those juices after you’ve emptied each shell.
Fennel-Steamed Mussels Provençal, from Bitten by Mark Bittman
Makes four portions
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
½ cup Pernod or Ricard, or 4 whole star anise
1 cup chopped tomatoes, if desired (canned are fine, drained first)
1 sprig fresh tarragon, if desired
At least 4 pounds large mussels, well washed
- Place the oil in a large pot and turn the heat to medium; one minute later, add the garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, liqueur, and tomatoes and tarragon if you’re using them. Bring to a boil, cook for about one minute. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and turn the heat to high.
- Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, five to ten minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the mussels and fennel to a serving bowl, then strain any liquid over them and serve.