A Mussel Dinner.

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.

mussels-on-the-plateHere’s a few tips more that I picked up:

  • 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.