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"Oh, yes," my friend moaned as he poked his fork enthusiastically into a steaming bowl of shellfish. "Mussels. The poor man's oyster."
The thought put a smile on my face. He was right on economics: The briny feast set out for this little dinner party had been bagged for under $20. But given a choice between oysters and mussels, I'll have mussels, thank you -- purely for reasons of taste.
Apparently, I'm in good company. Tim Lauer, general manager of Coastal Seafoods, may be the dean of local fishmongers. When I sheepishly confessed that I preferred mussels to their more prestigious cousins, Lauer unflinchingly replied, "Me, too." At that, we launched into a conversation fueled by mutual appreciation, ranging from taste to ecology, and the care and handling of mollusks.
First things first: Mussels belong to a family of bivalves (think hinged shells that close like a book) that include clams and oysters. If you've never tasted a mussel, you're in for a treat. They're sweeter and more delicate than an oyster, with a pleasantly meaty texture that's far less chewy than a clam.
Unlike oysters, mussels are seldom eaten raw. And that's a very good thing. The flavorful juices they throw off upon cooking are arguably their finest quality -- a true aficionado will practically lick the dish to avoid wasting a single drop.
Around the world
The classic French method of cooking mussels is to briefly steam them with white wine and aromatics -- yielding a deeply flavorful dish that's done in a matter of minutes. But various types of mussels range around the globe, giving cooks a world of tasty options. Italians use them in pasta sauces. In Spain, they crown paellas. Southeast Asians steam them with lemon grass and turn them into flavorful curries.
Since most of us don't eat shellfish every night, mussels have an exotic elegance that belies their paltry price. Lauer notes that, in his 25 years in the business, the cost of mussels has fluctuated very little.
The reason? Aquaculture. But don't flinch. In the case of mussels, it isn't a dirty word. Fish farming can have a bad (and in some cases well deserved) reputation for wreaking havoc with nature, but mussel farming can actually improve the marine environment.
Mussels have been cultivated in France since at least the 13th century.
Farming methods vary around the globe, but in Canada's Prince Edward Island (which produces the mussels we most frequently see at the market) the process goes like this: Mussel spawn is placed in a mesh bag, tied to a rope, and set out to sea. From there, the ocean takes over with the same diet mussels would eat in the wild. No unnatural foods are introduced. No antibiotics are needed.
Mussels feed on phytoplankton, which can become overly dense, choking out other species. Many scientists recommend shellfish farming as a way to reduce nitrogen and enhance the clarity of our seas. And ethical eaters can consume them without a side of guilt -- farmed mussels earn a "Best Choice" rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, and an "Eco-best" from the Environmental Defense Fund.
Easier to prep
Mussel farming has benefits in the kitchen, too. If you haven't cooked mussels in the past decade, put down the scrub brush -- you might be shocked at how clean and sand-free fresh mussels have become. Since farmed mussels don't have to cling to rocks, they develop less of the fibrous "beard" that mussels produce to attach themselves in the wild. And because they're suspended above the ocean floor, they're relatively free of grit. Lauer says they've also become more consistently plump and meaty.
Most of the mussels eaten locally -- and around the world -- are blue mussels. But you'll also see the Mediterranean mussel (with a somewhat stronger flavor) and the New Zealand Green Lipped mussel (which is relatively enormous and has a far more chewy flesh). Cooks can consider them interchangeable. If your recipe calls for one species, and you're dying to try another, have at it. Cooking times vary slightly, but mussels leave no mystery. When they open, they're done.
Side note to the curious: If you've wondered whether the zebra mussels that have been invading our waters might be a boon to our tables, the answer is no. Due to contaminates, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources advises against eating them.
Some handling dos and don'ts: Avoid buying open mussels or those with broken shells (you want mussels that are alive). If you do end up with an open mussel, Lauer says to tap it. If there's movement, it's viable. If there's no movement, the mussel is likely dead and should be discarded. Likewise, discard any mussels that don't open after they have cooked.
You can buy mussels up to a day before you plan to eat them. But keep them well chilled in the refrigerator, and disturb them as little as possible. (If they're in a plastic bag, open it to prevent suffocation.) Prep mussels at the last minute -- I give them a little scrub, but Lauer says he simply rinses them -- and remove any visible beard by tugging it gently toward the hinged end of the shell.
Cook immediately. And enjoy with impunity. The "poor man's oyster" is an affordable indulgence that offers the cook a wealth of possibilities.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis freelance writer.