I always want more muscles and mussels. I go about getting them in different ways but always want more of both. I like to ride my bike, run, and do hard core garden workouts for the first kind of muscle. The second kind of mussel is much much easier to enjoy. They look like elongated clams or small smooth oysters, but the mussel is not something you see on menus in this country all that often. We are crazy about oysters and pay top dollar for those delectable shell fish, but the mussel is largely ignored. In my opinion they are super cheap and super good. French bistros often have all you can eat mussels, and since they are mostly shell you can eat a LOT of them for cheap.
Making them at home is super easy and a great for a casual dinner party. Serve them with a dipping sauce, big green salad, your favorite kind of bread, some bubbly refreshing beverage, (I like hard cider here) and dinner becomes an event. Everyone shells their own mussels at their own pace, sips cider, and dips bread in the mussel cooking liquid.
The cooking liquid is a big deal. When these little mollusks steam open they infuse broth with rich umami flavor, and incredible bread soaking potential. The beauty of the broth is that it can go in many different directions. Start with garlic, onion, shallot, leek, or whatever allium you have on hand. White wine, butter and parsley is a traditional base, but I love adding tomato for some sweet acid that works well with the fish. Sesame oil, rice vinegar, coconut milk and chili garlic sauce can take your bivalves in an Asian direction. Or go Mediterranean with hazelnut oil, wild mushrooms, fresh fennel and rosemary. If bread isn’t your thing then rice noodles or even lightly steamed vegetables would be good bathed in this mussel-y broth.
Depending on where you get your mussels they may need to be cleaned by soaking in cool fresh water. Most grocery stores carry farm raised mussels and they don’t require much cleaning at all. Interestingly farm raised are also good for the environment because mussels help to filter whatever water they are living in. Debearding the mussels is always a good idea. If you see a fuzzy string poking out of the shell grab hold of it and pull to remove the “beard.”
Make your salad, slice your bread, and maybe even set the table before you start the mussels because cooking them doesn’t take long. Once the shells have steamed open they are done and ready to be served. Have a big empty bowl on the table for the shells, and individual bowls for everyone if your table is too big for all to reach the communal dipping broth. After it’s all over save leftover broth for soup stock and put the shells in your gravel driveway to be crushed and go back from whence they came. I can’t prove this, but I think eating more mussels may give you more muscles.
Mussels in Tomato Fennel Broth
2 pounds Mussels in shells
3 Tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 ½ cup diced onion, leek, or shallot
¾ cup white wine
3 cups diced tomatoes
½ cup fresh chopped herbs - fennel fronds or basil or parsley
4 cloves garlic – crushed
3 Tablespoons sweet white miso or pureed butternut squash
½ teaspoon salt – or more to taste
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
❖ Clean mussels by rinsing in cold water. De-beard any mussels that have a stringy fuzz hanging out. Discard open shells, and put cleaned mussels in a cool spot.
❖ Heat a dutch oven or heavy bottomed sauce pot over medium heat. Add butter and onion and saute for about 10 minutes until onions are soft.
❖ Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a steady boil. Taste and add more salt if needed.
❖ Add mussels, stir well, cover and let mussels steam for 3-4 minutes. Open lid carefully and stir. If all shells are open mussels are done. If not, re-cover and steam another minute or two.
❖ Serve with toasted bread for dipping in sauce.