When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.
I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”
I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.
The tide turns on mussels
If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.
More from Zester Daily
New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.
Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.
Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.
Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.
There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.
The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.
Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.
I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.
Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course
5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)
3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup
1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup
½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish
1½ cups dry white wine
1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small
Big pinch of saffron
Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper
½ pound cavatelli pasta
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.
2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.
3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.
4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.
5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.
6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.
7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.
Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins