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Mussels
Why Eat It
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation


Why Eat It

These slender blue-black bivalves are found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In their natural state, they attach themselves to surf-washed rocks and spend half their lives submerged and half exposed to the air. Long a favorite food in Europe, these mollusks are growing quickly in popularity with Americans.

The diminutive mussel meats, which may be cream-colored to dark orange, are delicately sweet and are usually steamed and served in their attractive shells, baked with a crumb topping, or used in salads or cooked dishes.

Mussels are sold live, fresh (shucked), and cooked as well as smoked. You can also buy canned mussels.

Availability

Because mussels are severely affected by pollutants, they are now being commercially farmed in "safe" waters. When conditions are optimal, these cultivated mussels are usually superior in quality to wild mussels. Although available year round, mussels are best and most plentiful from October through May; in late spring, their spawning season, they tend to be of inferior quality.

Shopping

As with fin fish, your nose and eyes can tell you a lot about the merchandise. Mussels should smell briny-fresh, and look bright and clean.

Mussels, because they are sold live, offer specific signals of freshness: The shells should be tightly closed (so that you can't pull them apart), or should close tightly when the shell is tapped; don't buy mussels with open or cracked shells.

Freshly shucked mussels should smell perfectly fresh, with no trace of ammonia or a "fishy" smell.

Storage

When you buy mussels, it is imperative to keep them alive--or cold--until you are ready to cook and serve them.

Live mussels can be stored in the refrigerator, covered with wet kitchen towels or paper towels. Don't put them in an airtight container or submerge them in fresh water, or they will die. The key is to keep them truly cold: if possible, at 32°F to 35°F. Within that range, mussels should stay alive for about four to seven days. Be sure to remove any that die (look for open shells) during that period so they do not contaminate the remaining bivalves. Shucked mussels should be kept in tightly covered containers, immersed in their liquid; they, too, should keep for up to a week.

You can freeze shucked raw mussels in their liquid in airtight containers. They should keep for two months if the freezer is set at 0°F or colder. Thaw frozen mussels in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.

Preparation

To prepare mussels for cooking (they are most commonly cooked in their shells), scrub the shells (with a stiff brush, if necessary) and rinse under cold running water. Scrape any tough encrustations from the shells with a sturdy knife. Pull the stringy "beards"--the fibrous dark tufts protruding from the shells--out of the mussels before rinsing them, if you like (some people prefer to leave them on).

When it comes to cooking mussels, the trick is to heat them sufficiently to destroy harmful organisms (an internal temperature of 145°F), but not so long as to make the flesh too tough. This requires careful monitoring, as mussels can be toughened by just seconds of overcooking. Cooking times vary depending on size and species.

Steaming: This is the most common way of cooking mussels. You can use this method to cook the mussels before removing them from the shells and incorporating into a dish that needs no further cooking (such as a salad). Or you can steam them to serve hot, in their shells, usually with the broth that is created when you cook them. Place the mussels in a pot with about 1" to 2" of boiling liquid (water, wine, or seasoned broth), cover, and steam over high heat until the shells open (but for a minimum of six minutes for safety's sake). Discard any shells that do not open.

Microwaving: Arrange mussels in a microwaveable dish, hinges toward the outside of the dish. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave until the shells open and the seafood tests done.

Baking: Shucked mussels can be baked, but they should be topped with a sauce or coating, a layer of vegetables or bread crumbs, or combine with other ingredients in a casserole. This helps to protect them from the full intensity of the dry heat.

Broiling/grilling: Mussels in their shells can be cooked on a grill until the shells open


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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