Mussels bound

Mussels are easily farmed and are readily available in supermarket seafood cases. They can also be harvested in the wild. Adobe Stock

May 2022

By Jean Kerr

Long considered subsistence food, mussels, in the past few decades, have finally gotten the culinary respect they deserve. In the late 1800s, when Americans couldn’t get enough oysters, Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking School Cookbook described mussels as “an inferior sort of oyster.” It declined to provide even a single recipe. Go figure.

These days, any New England seafood restaurant worth its salt will certainly have mussels on the menu. But Americans still consume a fraction of the blue bivalve, about .15 pounds per capita, as compared to about 5 pounds per capita in Europe. Prince Edward Island, our neighbor to the north, is renowned for its mussels, harvesting about 50 million pounds per year.

We are fortunate indeed in New England to have scrumptious blue mussels available throughout the year, whether from PEI or other local sources. They are comparatively easy to farm and can often be gathered in their natural state. Be sure to check with your local shellfish warden regarding permits and whether there is “red tide” present – toxic algae bloom that affects bivalves. While coastal mussel beds are not as common as they once were due to the usual human activities (like the destruction of habitat and climate change), it’s good fun to forage for your own.

Most farmed mussels are rope grown but will attach themselves to almost anything. But, like oysters, mussels are filter feeders and help filter the seawater around them. They actually have a positive effect on the seawater they grow in. Wild mussels tend to be smaller and less plump than their farmed counterparts but equally delicious. They also need to be debearded, that is, to remove the tough byssus strands with which they attach themselves to their chosen perch. There is some evidence that Greek fishermen wove these nearly indestructible fibers into fishing gloves that lasted virtually forever.

Most farmed mussels that you’re likely to find at the market are quite clean and generally come debearded. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to give them a rinse, check for any remaining byssus fibers and remove them before cooking. Also, discard any that are open and won’t close or with broken shells.

Mussels are readily available – most supermarkets’ seafood departments carry them – and inexpensive compared to many other bivalves and are easy to cook. There are lots of ways to prepare mussels, but like most seafood, the key is to start with the freshest product you can find. I often begin with heating some olive oil in a large pot, adding some fresh shallots and garlic, and then see what else is on hand. Chopped fennel bulb, celery and good-quality canned tomatoes are a good bet. Add a bit of fish or lobster stock and a good glug of white vermouth. A loaf of crusty bread to sop up the broth is a must.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including, “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.

Mussels Fra Diavolo

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 can of good quality crushed tomatoes, with their juice
  • 1/2 cup of white vermouth or other white wine
  • 1 cup of water or seafood stock
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2 pounds of blue mussels, rinsed and debearded

 

Instructions

  1. Heat half the olive oil in a deep pot. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent.
  2. Add the garlic, tomatoes, oregano, and garlic and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add the mussels and cover loosely. Cook until the mussels are fully open. Discard any that remain closed.
  4. Ladle the mussels and broth into bowls, drizzle the remaining olive oil over and serve with warm crusty bread.