It's taken awhile, but it seems we've finally discovered our mussels. And no, that's not a misprint, folks. I'm certainly not about to write an article about biceps, no matter how interesting that subject might be to some readers. I'm talking about shellfish, and in particular, those shiny, blue-black mollusks that thrive in such huge quantities all along our Atlantic coast. If you haven't tried them yet, it's time for some adventure.
Similar in appearance to clams and oysters, mussels are just as delicious, yet distinctively different with a slightly sweet flavor and a breathtaking aroma. As with those other two favorites, they can be steamed, baked or fried, but steaming is by far the best way to go, no matter how you wind up serving them. They're extremely versatile and can be served hot, in the shell, as a main dish, or along with other fish and shellfish in any number of stews such as bouillabaisse or cioppino. Out of the shell you can serve them cold in a salad with tangy vinegar or lemon dressing.
Unlike clams and oysters, mussels are amazingly inexpensive, and in less than 10 minutes you can serve up a whopping portion of mussels for a fraction of what any other shellfish would cost. Whole Foods Market has mussels right now for $2.99 a pound (that's anywhere from 12 to 40 mussels, depending on their size), and they're even less expensive (about $1.80) at some fish markets.
The first time I tasted mussels was when I worked as a cook at L'Escargot on Chicago's North Side back in the late 1960s. It was the classic Moules Marinière, the simplest, yet most elegant recipe you can imagine. And although I now enjoy mussels in many ways and tout their versatility, this is still my all time favorite.
Most mussels sold at retail today are farm raised and require little cleaning. If the mussels have barnacles or a beard (like seaweed) protruding from the shell, scrape them with a sharp knife and rinse them under cold water.
Discard any with broken shells and those with open shells that refuse to close when you tap them.
A fun way to eat mussels is to use a pair of the hinged shells to pluck each mussel from its shell. When the mussels are gone you can break the pair apart and use a half shell as a spoon for the broth. Or you can just sop it all up with the bread. Be adventuresome!
4 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed and rinsed
in cold water (if necessary)
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 cup vermouth or dry white wine
Place the mussels in a large kettle.
Add the chopped shallots and parsley.
Add the vermouth or white wine.
Cover and cook over high heat just until the shells open (you'll see the steam begin to escape from the kettle) in about 3 to 5 minutes.
Discard any mussels with unopened shells.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mussels to individual bowls.
Add some of the broth to each bowl.
Serve with French bread.