Holiday muscle dish
Like many Americans, every year I looked forward to my St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage. And every year, my mother loved to remind us that if we really wanted to enjoy a traditional Irish feast, we should be having mussels instead.
Indeed, mussels are a common meal on that rocky emerald isle in the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, they are delicious, sustainable and easy to prepare, making them a delightful alternative to the typical American St. Paddy’s Day bacchanalia of green beer, frightening leprechauns and corned beef hash. And since the saint’s day falls on a Friday this year, they’re a festive meal option that lets the observant among us keep the Lenten fast.
These simple little mollusks are nutritional powerhouses, packing in 10 grams of protein with just 70 calories and 2 grams of fat per 3-gram serving. They’re also a good source of vitamin C, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids and have more iron and vitamin B12 per serving than beef!
Blue Mussels, which are native to the Atlantic Coast and include the Prince Edward Island (PEI) type, are the variety you’re most likely to find fresh in the Midwest, though the larger New Zealand green-lipped variety can sometimes be found in the freezer section at the grocery. PEI mussels are smaller, with shiny black shells, while the green-lipped mussels can be very large. When I lived in New Zealand, we would drive out to the beach and pry the chartreuse-edged bivalves off the rocks at low tide. Some of them were almost as big as my hand. Once home, we would steam them with coconut milk and Thai curry paste, or smoke them over cherry wood, or pickle them for a delicious hors d’oeuvre.
The mussels available in stores are almost always farmed, and in fact are one of the most sustainable, eco-friendly seafood choices available to consumers. Unlike many types of farmed seafood, which is often raised in overcrowded tanks and fed a diet of fish byproducts, chemicals and antibiotics, mussel farming occurs in open ocean water, where the mussels feed on the nutrients in the water. Mussels are not as susceptible to disease and parasites as oysters, and they actually improve the water quality of the area they are being raised in. They provide a natural reef-like environment for other species in the ocean, such as lobsters and small fish, to interact, thrive and hide out from predators. During my time in New Zealand, I was fortunate to be able to visit one of these mussel farms on a trip to Akaroa, a charming French seaside settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano.
A boat tour took us to the far side of one of the bays, where we saw lines of buoys strung together, floating on the current. Below these buoys were seed collectors: long pieces of frayed rope or mesh socks attached to a line. In the spring, when the mussels spawn, the mussel farmer drops the seed collectors into the water, providing a settlement surface on which the microscopic mussel larva can attach. Once attached, they form a hard shell. In the fall the young mussels – called spats – are stripped from their seed collection lines, graded by size and bagged in mesh socks that are quickly taken out and reattached to the line in the water. There they stay until they are ready to be harvested at around 18-24 months.
Mussels may seem intimidating to prepare, but they are actually one of the easiest (and most impressive) meals a home cook can pull off. When buying mussels, don’t be afraid to ask to smell the bag first. They should smell fresh and briny like the ocean – not strong or fishy.
Once home, remove them from the mesh bag and transfer them to a colander. Rinse under cold water and look them over and remove any mussels that have broken shells or that don’t close up when tapped against the counter. Mussels are a live product; they open and close naturally when not in the water. Mussels that don’t close up when tapped are dead and should be discarded. If you are not going to cook them immediately, place the colander in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and store in the refrigerator for up to five days. Do not store them submerged in water, and be sure to drain any accumulated water daily.
When you are ready to cook them, check them over one more time and tap any open mussels against the counter to make sure they are still alive. Most farm-raised mussels come to market in an extremely clean state, as the vertical line farming method prevents them from accumulating as much grit as would be found in wild mussels, but you may still find a few mussels with their “beards” still attached. These are the membranes that the mussel uses to attach itself to the surface upon which it grows. To remove, grasp the beard firmly between your thumb and forefinger and pull down towards the hinged end of the mussel.
Now you are ready to cook! You need a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. Start by sautéing some garlic or leeks in a little fat. Mussels release their own delicious broth with cooking, but you need to add a little liquid (e.g., broth, wine, beer or even coconut milk) to start them steaming. After your liquid of choice has reached a boil, dump in the mussels. I recommend cooking about one and a half pounds of mussels per person as a main course. Place the lid on the pot and steam for 7-10 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the level of heat and amount of mussels in the pot. When the steam has been escaping out from under the pot for 20 seconds, the mussels are done. Let rest one minute, then ladle the mussels into a shallow bowl, being sure to include a ladleful of the scrumptious broth. Top with chopped parsley and serve with crusty bread.
St. Patrick’s Day Bacon and Guinness Steamed Mussels
• 2 pounds mussels, rinsed, picked over and debearded, if necessary
• 4 ounces diced bacon
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• 12 oz Guinness or other dark stout beer
• ¼ cup chopped parsley
In a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon and set aside on a paper towel to drain. Add the garlic and onion, sautéing until softened and fragrant. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add the bay leaf, thyme and Guinness. Bring to a boil, then add the mussels and immediately cover the pot. Steam for 7-10 minutes. Let rest 1 minute, then top with chopped parsley and serve with crusty bread.
Note: to make this dish meat-free for Lent, omit the bacon and fry the onion and garlic in butter instead.
Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.