Flex Your Mussels: Two Delicious Recipes
When my husband and I first met, we lived in Boston and Manhattan, respectively, so our first real “date” had to be one of those volatile weekend visits that destroy so many fledgling relationships. He was coming to visit me. I was racking my brain to think of the best places to take him and the most not-awkward things to do: first date on steroids.
Of course we talked on the phone a lot, because we were not able to see each other in person. One night a few days before that first weekend visit, I was listening with only one ear as he told me about his evening. What I was really thinking about what if I shouldn’t take him to my favorite Belgian restaurant for dinner. But did he like shellfish? Polarizing.
Meanwhile, he was rattling on about his evening’s activities, and told me he had just gotten back from the gym. Running along my own selfish thought train, I blurted out “Do you like mussels?”
There was an awkward pause.
“Ummm…what do you mean?” Because, based on the actual conversation he had thought we were having about his trip to the gym, this is what he heard.
“Do you like muscles?”
This could have been one of those moments when so many relationships go horribly wrong and end before they are started. Because, seriously, what kind of a creepy question was that?
As it turns out, I was able to explain myself. He did, in fact, like mussels. We ended up going to Cafe de Bruxelles for dinner, got ridiculously sauced, and had a stupendous time eating mussels and frites.
Sadly, this incredible Village spot was sold several years ago and is now a French restaurant, for God’s sake. Tragic, indeed.
I really never embraced seafood until moving to the east coast in 1996, but it turns out, of course, that tons of people like mussels and other shellfish . They seem really hard to make, right? But it turns out they are not at all. In fact, they are also cheap, sustainable, and can even fit into your diet if you watch the bread intake (what’s the bowl of mussels without a little bread for soaking up sauce?) You really can’t lose. I am going to share two favorite methods with you.
First, don’t be too intimidated by the idea of buying and cleaning mussels. In Rockland, I’d probably just pop by Jess’s Seafood Market as my first stop. However, living inland is also not a problem (except in the hottest weather). I can’t say this is true everywhere, but even at our year-round home in Northern Virginia I find them at my local store in 2 1/2 lb. bags, basically clean, and costing $6. The person behind the counter may drop them in a plastic bag, but don’t let it be tied shut! Mussels are alive and must breathe. Pick them up late in your shopping trip and get them right home to rest on ice in a bowl in your fridge. Use them the same day. I find that the bag is perfect for two people as an entree or for four as an appetizer.
Beware of mussels harvested more than 2 weeks ago (we prefer a week or less) ) or with many visible open shells, cracked shells, or a “fishy” smell. Pass on those. Not good. You can see the harvest date on the label attached to the bag. If they’re in the window of the seafood counter, I guess you might want to ask. But if you don’t want to go through them looking for the answer, just give those mussels a really good once-over and smell them when they come across the counter. That should tell you what you need to know. They should smell clean – like the sea. NOT like fishy fish.
When all of your ingredients are out and you are ready to cook, take the mussels and examine them individually under cold running water. They should be tightly closed. If you find one that is not, give it a gentle squeeze and see if it slowly closes. If it doesn’t close, toss it. If a mussel still has a little ropey “beard” on on side, just tear it off. You want those gone.
Voila! You are ready to cook.
Our current favorite can be found in Lidia Bastianich’s cookbook (see source). I really love Lidia’s cookbooks, by the way, because they provide recipes that include lots of variations and suggestions for mixing and matching. I recommend her for even beginning Italian cooks. Anyway – her mussels Trieste is delicious and simple to make.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1 or 2 onions cut into 1/4 inch slices (about 2 cups)
4 bay leaves
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp peperoncino flakes
1/2 cup white wine (we use vermouth often)
2 1/2 or 3 lbs. mussels (the bags are usually 2 1/2) cleaned
1/4 to 1/2 C breadcrumbs (or as needed)
3 Tb. chopped fresh Italian parsley
Splash a few tablespoons of olive oil into a big heavy-bottomed pot (you must have a lid available!) drop in the garlic and put over medium heat. Let the garlic sizzle, but don’t let it burn! When it is fragrant, stir in the onion, bay leaves, salt, and peperoncino.
Cook for a couple of minutes, tossing and stirring just until the onions wilt but still have some crunch. Pour in the wine/vermouth and bring to a boil. Immediately dump all the mussels into the pan, tumble them over quickly, cover tightly, and turn the heat up to high. Steam the mussels for 2 minutes, frequently shaking the covered pan, then toss them over with a slotted spoon. If most of the shells have already opened, leave the pan uncovered. Otherwise, put the cover back on and steam a little longer.
When they are all open, sprinkle 1/4 cup breadcrumbs all over the pan. Quickly tumble the mussels over and over, still on high heat, creating a sauce. Add more breadcrumbs if the sauce is still thin after a minute of dribbling.
Drizzle 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with parsley. Toss briefly.
Spoon mussels into big bowls and ladle the sauce over each portion.
Source: Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali. New York: Knopf, 2007
Garlic warning: Make your date eat these, too!
Like I said, this is our current go-to recipe. but another favorite is one we worked out based on a mussels preparation from a book called Low Fat and Loving It by Ruth Spear and a dish from Cafe de Bruxelles. If you like mussels with a marinara sauce, this one could be for you!
same size bag of mussels
1 small chopped onion
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
handful chopped parsley
3-4 dashes tabasco
1/2 C sliced green olives
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp dried oregano
2/3 cup vermouth or white wine
Clean the mussels as before. Heat the pan and splash some olive oil in it. Throw in the onions and garlic and saute until soft and transparent – a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, parsley, tabasco, salt, and oregano. Cook 5 min.
Add the wine/vermouth, the olives, and the mussels and cover, cooking over high heat 8 to 10 min. or until the mussels open.
Spoon into bowls the same way as the first recipe and serve with crusty bread for dipping.
We often have mussels on a weeknight. The person who puts our youngest to bed (he only takes a few minutes) comes downstairs and does the necessary chopping and
measuring and then cleans the mussels. By the time The toddler is in bed 20 min. later, and we’re ready to roll! Within 15 minutes, we are sitting at the table having a great meal with a nice glass of white wine.
Definitely consider mussels for your next awkward first date (hey, he married me!) or even your next married-forever date – although perhaps you’ll want to skip the garlic…