Mussels

Photo by Donna (see her blog for comments on this)

I prepared a special meal for dear friends on Saturday, one of those meals that takes the better part of the day to set up. It's been a long time since I spent all day in the kitchen.  Trip to the farmer's market in the morning, store all the food and shuck the corn (boil and eat half a dozen ears for breakfast, no better late summer breakfast,heaven), then start checking off the list—shuck, boil, shock, peel the lima beans, cook off the clams and strain the stock, make the corn sauce, cook off the bacon, etc.  Kitchen work broken only by the forty minutes to drive my daughter to her friend's to get ready for the homecoming dance that night.  Gorgeous late summer day. Long, meditative, solitary work in the kitchen, a real pleasure.

But of all the courses and the elaborate sauce work that went into the meal, the best part of it was the course that took the least amount of work—from start to finish, the course that was the most fun to eat took all of five minutes prepare, cook and serve, and underscores the supremacy of product over craft and the fact that the most important part of cooking is the shopping.

My dear friend Peter had requested lobster.  Then he said, how about clams?  And I said, How about braised pork belly, and Peter said, "Oooooo, that sounds good." Pork belly and shellfish would be an awesome combination.  So I called my friend Ingrid who lives in Stonington, Maine, and gets the VERY best shellfish in America.  Costs an arm and a leg due to shipping but we wanted the very best.

When the box arrived I found a surprise.  Ingrid had miscounted her mussels orders and found she had an extra sack, which she'd thrown in with my clams and lobsters. Hers are little baby mussels which she refers to as bouchots, after the French method of growing them on ropes attached to poles.  They're about two inches long and their shells are so clean they require no debearding. Best of all though is their flavor—they taste of the sea, like that fresh sea air, but above above all, they're sweet. So sweet.

That's why it's best to do as little as possible to them. They're a gift, don't get in their way, don't put them in a fancy party dress. This method works for any good mussel and the way I recommend preparing them:

Mince a shallot and put them in the bottom of a big cast iron enamel pot with a cup of white wine, a cup of light chicken stock (fresh, otherwise water or nothing), a handful of thyme and half a stick of butter.  Add the mussels, cover and put over high heat.  Just when the pot steams, they're ready.  Serve them in big bowls with plenty of the cooking liquor and warm crusty baguette. If possible serve them outside on a late summer Saturday evening when the sun is low and golden and you are with your best friends.

The morning's fresh corn, boiled for 60 seconds, the mussels finished if a few minutes, a reminder that the best food on earth requires the least amount of effort.

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34 Wonderful responses to “Mussels”

  • sbp

    Great mussels are sooo good. And inexpensive. Other than dumb luck, are there any selection tips for getting them sweet? They always seem so hit and miss when it comes to sweetness.

    PS: That photo is ridiculously good. Donna is some artist.

  • JoP in Omaha

    Your post started my day with a smile. The parts I loved best: that simplicitiy is often the best way to go; and, “…meditative, solitary work in the kitchen…” That’s what I love best about cooking. It’s (usually) a quiet, peaceful time that allows me to reflect about my day, my plans, my desires. Cooking feeds my soul as well as my body.

    Glad your day was a good one.

  • kevin

    Michael,
    I roasted a chicken last night (free-range, local) and although the coooking time was a bit longer than your mussels the prep was no more difficult. Also eaten with fresh corn and mashed potatoes.

  • Laura

    Ah, you’ve inspired me to seek out some decent mussels…they’ve been on my mind for ages! And you’ve inspired me to give myself some kitchen time…the poor little room has been sorely neglected as of late.

  • Mike

    Michael, try baking the corn in the husks (400 degrees works well). They’re easier to shuck afterwards and taste better.

  • Rose

    I love simple preparations of fresh, high quality ingredients! Some of my fondest memories are of warm days, bowls of shellfish & crusty baguettes (good friends & wine mandatory)!

  • The Italian Dish

    That’s my favorite kind of day – cooking for friends. I absolutely love mussels – I wish I could try these. It just goes to show you that when you have top quality ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them.

  • Luke

    One of my favorite recipies (and most requested) are steamed little neck clams. Like your mussels, they require little to no effort to make. White Wine, garlic, butter, fresh parsley, crushed red pepper, and plenty of crusty bread…heaven in a bowl. I’ve done different variations of this dish, but the fundamentals are the same. Good Fresh locally sources clams from MA produce a magical result.

    One of my first food memories even better exemplifies your point; Growing up near a river (where we source clams) I can remember my Dad and his friends opening clams right out of the water with a sharp knife and then popping them right in their suits in bare feet… Fresh clams, a little technique, and a lemon….on a warm summer day with your feet in the sand….perfect….oh and a cold beer too!

  • rob

    It seems like the wine alchohol content would be really strong after only cooking for a few minutes, am I wrong?

  • Rhonda

    I eat fresh mussels at least once a month. They are all a little different in taste depending on what is local and available.

    I do mine slightly differently, but with wine, parsley, garlic and white onion.

    I know this sounds like gilding the lilly but I always serve them with a melted garlic/parsley butter on the side so that you can dip each mussel in before eating. OH, and then sop up the rest with fresh bread!

    I never thought of pairing with corn. Sounds Fabulous! I only have 1 – 2 good feeds of corn a year and then I am basically satiated and done.

    Great post, Michael and wow, the picture!!!!!

  • Carrie

    What a gorgeous photo!

    I’ve never made mussels. I don’t really have financial access to ones from anywhere but the supermarket, and I’m afraid to buy those! LOL

  • carri

    Beautiful photo and post! Of all the seafood we have access to here on the alaskan coast, mussels are by far my favorite. The oyster farmers here harvest them almost as aside since they attach themselves to the lines the oysters grow on. I agree, simple is absolutely the way to go…no heavy saffron sauce or anything. They also come with their own eating utensil, just break off the top and use that as a scoop to get the meat out of the bottom. We harvest our own by hiking down the beach from the bakery at low tide and picking them off the rocks…soooo good!

  • rarem

    Sounds like a lovely day and a lovely meal. The Moules are a timeless classic but Chicken stock is totally unnecessary – no? The liquor should taste of the sea not of the land…

  • ruhlman

    sbp: mussels really are hit or miss and you never know how long they’ve been sitting around. Once bivalves are out of the water they more or less start feeding on themselves. I know some chefs who will only order mussels if they know the chef personally. Only way to ensure good mussels all the time is to know their source.

    rob: combined with the light stock, wasn’t too strong; also i measured by sight so it could be i put in less than a cup. but i don’t think so.

    rarem: i don’t disagree with you; i wanted a little more flavor (it was very light).

    rhonda, I paired the corn with lobster, not mussels.

    sean: lake erie mussels? As they’re filters, I’d be very wary of these!

  • John

    Michael,

    All mussels are filters, yes? are you particularly worried about Lake Erie?

  • John Dennison

    Occasionally I help out on a mussel aquaculture raft here in Casco Bay, Maine.

    I wrote a little report and took some great photos of two trips out there a couple years ago – one to harvest and one for seeding. Click on my name below to check it out.

  • Dick Black

    Do you prefer the leaded or unleaded Lake Erie mussels Sean ?

    Do not believe a commercial mussel industry exists on Lake Erie, but the lake perch is trawled and sent to Japan. Fisherman fetch 3 times as much selling to the Japanese.

  • shebee

    glad you supported the economy in Stonington. Our Ohio family spent a week in the lovely lobster village this past summer. We heard many a sad tale about the woes of the local lobster fisherman. We certainly tried to eat our share of the bounty from the sea!

  • Natalie Sztern

    outside of lobster, mussels are my next favorite: difference is I have never cooked lobster at home but I absolutely love to cook mussels.
    I never make the same way twice cause every recipe is whatever is in the cupboards and fridge that day but wine is a must

  • luis

    Not big on mussells… but here is one for you to file away and challenge the talent pool here sometime.
    Why do my ice cubes from the ice cube tray seem to explode when they hit my glass o’Merlot.?. Don’t worry I am checking Mcgee in the morning… and Bittman and Martha…and Pepin..and the gosh darn CIA Proffessional chef elephant book….

  • JunkyPOS

    Gotta luv mussels…

    I agree a little shallot, garlic, white wine, butter, parsley and thyme variations can be one of the best cheapest meals on the planet (granted you are can get fresh such as Maine).

    I’ve thrown in a few slices of bacon or diced chorizo, a few red pepper flakes even depending what’s on hand sometimes and you can’t go wrong.

    Of course you can’t forget the bread…

  • sbp

    Luis: the wine warms up the ice cube, causing air trapped inside to warm up and expand. No place to go, it cracks apart the ice. Smaller chunks of ice also means you’re diluting your Merlot with water even more quickly.

  • Dave

    Does Ingrid Bengis Seafood sell to the general public, or do you have to be part of the “in-crowd”? (ie, either have a connection, or be a restaurant)

  • luis

    sbp, that’s it! expanding air. But whyyyy is there air in my ice cubes? Can it be avoided? Mitigated in some devious way? Lord knows I don’t put it there.

  • sbp

    Luis: Ice from a tap has loads of dissolved air in it. (That’s what fish breath).

    Yes, you can avoid it. It’s a pain in the butt to do. You need to boil the water first.

  • sbp

    Water from a tap has loads of dissolved air in it. That’s what fish breath.

    You can get rid of it, but it’s more trouble that it’s worth. You need to boil the water before pouring into ice cube trays. I’ll stick with the cloudy ice from my auto-icemaker.

  • josh gamage

    I remember when Great Eastern Mussells used to do tents at local events and tell people about the benefits of eating mussells. Most Mainers were like thats trash or its weird because we just associated them with the shoreline and anyone could just grab some and boil them up. Seemed funky and weird to eat them back then.

  • Barbara

    Michael…if you have time, can you talk a little about purging mussels? We harvested some wild ones off our shoreline in Maine (our first experience doing that) and they were beyond heavenly, but I have questions! Must you always purge? Does flour work instead of cornmeal? How long (minimum) must you soak the mussels for purging to be effective? Is it possible the pearls can be purged too? Love learning from you…really has expanded my exploration into the joy of cooking.

    Barbara

  • digiteyes

    Mussels in restaurants in Toronto seem to be a hit-and-miss affair. Seldom do I get a plate full that doesn’t have at least one tasting like a barn smells.

    My best mussels ever were from a spot in Nova Scotia, on the Northumberland Strait, where my parents had a farmhouse they used as a summer cottage.

    We went there one Thanksgiving weekend, and at low tide, went out to a point that is covered with mussels and submerged at high tide. We harvested our Thanksgiving dinner there.

    They had been fattening themselves up for winter, and were very plump and tasty.

    Barbara: I’ve never purged mussels, and haven’t run into many that were gritty. Much more likely to run into gritty clams. Purging won’t get rid of pearls: pearls aren’t in the digestive tract, they’re the result of irritating pieces of sand, dirt, or shell that the mussel covers with layers of a protectant.