Don't be intimidated by these sustainable, nutrient-packed mollusks.
"De-bearding." "Purging." "Scrubbing."
If you’ve ever read a mussels recipe, you may well have decided that the lingo was too daunting for you to face them at home. The first time I cooked mussels I was straight-up terrified. How was I to store these bivalve mollusks without killing them? And how did I know which ones were dead, so as not to give myself food poisoning?
All in all, it seemed much simpler to waltz down to the nearest French bistro—admittedly an easy thing to do here in New York City—and plunk down $12 to $17 for mussels and fries.
But wait! Don’t do that. Not every time, at least. Mussels are sustainable, packed with omega-3s and vitamin B12, ready in 15 minutes, and so cheap to cook at home: You’ll see them going for $3 per pound or so. I bought a full 36 mussels for $8 even in la-di-da Brooklyn, bringing the cost of two suppers to $4 apiece. Buy your own cheap rosé or Riesling and a loaf of crusty bread, and you’ve got mussels-for-two, with wine, for about $15–no tip required.
Let’s break down the intimidating factors so you can start eating more mussels at home, too.
When you see mussels at the farmer’s market or supermarket, make sure they look moist and that their shells look tightly closed. (If you see a ton of wide-open shells, go elsewhere for seafood.) They should be stored under or over ice. Bring a cooler, and ask the vendor to give you a bag of ice to pack with them. At home, place them in a bowl under a well-sealed bag of ice, and cover the bowl with a damp towel or cloth. Though many folks say mussels should stay good that way for a couple of days, I tend to eat mine the day I get them—but I am not great at delaying gratification.
The amount of cleaning will depend on whether you’ve bought farm-raised or wild mussels. The former often grow on vertical rope farms, which means they might arrive in your kitchen relatively free from debris. They also tend to spend time in tanks prior to shipping, which means the “purging” step—during which they hang out in cold water until they spit out impurities—is already complete. Farm-raised mussels typically only need a brief rinse under cold water, using a cloth to scrub at any oddball spots, before cooking. As you clean them, feel along their ridges for the “beards”—a sort of string that occurs outside the pinched shell. Pull it from one end of the shell to the other, and yank it off. (There shouldn’t be many of these.)
Wild mussels, on the other hand, might be a bit more... colorful. A fishmonger recently sold me a bag with shiny, cleaned mussels on the outside, and all sorts of oceanic debris on the inner mussels. Sneaky! I got a clean sponge, held each mussel under cold water, and scrubbed away, de-bearding as I went. It took a minute, but they were delicious. I chose not to purge them, but if you want to do so, put your wild mussels in a large bowl of well-salted, cold water and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before cooking. Stir occasionally. Just before use, pull them out of the bowl with your hands, leaving any sand they’ve spit out behind.
You don’t want to cook any mussels that arrive with open or cracked shells, but first, make sure those shells won’t close with a little help: By squeezing them gently together or rapping the mussels softly on the side of a sink, you’ll see which are still alive; they’ll close themselves back up. If no amount of soft tapping and squeezing does the trick, toss those suckers in the trash.
There are two schools of thought on mussels that don’t open after cooking: One says that you should toss any that don’t open; the other says they’re fine, just crack them open. I tend to err on the side of caution, tossing those that remain closed, but do be sure—however you cook them—that you’ve given each little guy enough time to open up. By using tongs to remove the cooked, open mussels, and moving the closed ones around in the broth at the bottom of the pot to get quite hot, they might soon relent to the heat, and pop open. It’s quite satisfying if they do—like rescuing a piece of your supper.
Mussels are the rare type of seafood that earn great marks from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch sustainability site, which notes that farmed mussels in particular are “one of the most sustainable seafoods you can buy.” As author and fish expert Paul Greenberg pointed out in a recent NPR interview, “Mussels, clams, [and] oysters [actually] improve the marine environment even as we grow them. They filter the water. They make the water cleaner. They actually provide structure for all sorts of other animals to exist.”
Here’s yet another arena in which mussels shine. They’re a fantastic source of vitamin B12, delivering more than three times the daily recommended value in one 3-oz. serving. They’re high in protein, low in fat, and deliver about a third of your daily iron and a fifth of what you need for vitamin C.
Some would guesstimate half a pound of mussels per person; I’m more of a pound per person gal myself and would suggest that if you’re hosting people for a (cheap, delicious) supper. The classic French preparation with white wine, parsley, and garlic is a fabulous approach, but remember that—like tofu—mussels are a blank canvas. They can be what you want them to be.
Broil them and serve them with herb butter on the half-shell as an elegant appetizer. Toss them into a spicy shrimp seafood stew. One of the tastiest ways I’ve tried them of late is with a curry butter sauce at Lot 2 here in Brooklyn. Chef Allison Plumer was kind enough to share the recipe, below, which worked marvelously at home. Do be sure you have enough bread to soak up all that extra curry butter; it is to-die-for tasty.
Curry Butter Mussels
Allison Plumer, Chef and Co-Owner, Lot 2, Brooklyn, NY
Serves 2 as an entrée and 3 to 4 as an appetizer
Note: Plumer calls for jarred curry paste, but if you don’t have it, 1 ½ Tbsps. of yellow Indian curry powder plus a dash of garlic powder made a fine substitute.
4 oz. (1 stick) room-temperature unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. red or green curry paste (from a jar or can)
Pinch of sugar
½ medium white onion, ½-inch dice
1 clove garlic, minced
Coconut oil (or canola oil)
Dry white wine
¼ cup water
¼ cup coconut milk
½ cup fresh or frozen peas
24 to 30 mussels, cleaned and purged (if necessary)
½ fresh lemon
Crusty bread, for serving
- Make compound butter: Mix butter, curry paste, and sugar together in a large bowl, mashing contents with a wooden spoon. Set aside.
- Cook mussels: Heat a wide stockpot such as a Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic with a splash of coconut oil, stirring frequently, until onions are soft, but before garlic browns. Deglaze pan with white wine, using wooden spoon to scrape up golden bits. Add water, coconut milk, 2 Tbsps. of compound butter, peas, and mussels. Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium. Check after a few minutes to see if mussels have started to open, which shouldn't take more than a few minutes once the liquid comes up to a hard simmer. Once most mussels are open, discard any mussels that have not opened. Transfer mussels to large serving bowl.
- Finish the pan sauce by adding remainder of compound butter. Whisk to incorporate. Add squeeze of lemon and taste for acid, salt, and butter. Pour half a cup of sauce into each of two large bowls. Pour rest of sauce over bowl of mussels. Toss gently with tongs, to combine. Serve with bread.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.