Mussels are one of the most common shellfish in our supermarkets. It is so easy to cook them and they are such a versatile ingredient, that I can never get bored experimenting new dishes with them. They can be found in different sizes and colours, and that depends not just on the type of mussel but also on the season and on the environment where they lived (e.g. cold water VS warmer water or farmed VS wild). So when you go to the fishmonger and you find several types of mussels…which ones should you buy?
How do you choose mussels?
The best mussels are usually the ones found from September to April, for climatic reasons. Even if farmed mussels are usually available every time of the year, they do taste better when they are in season. They should be as fresh as possible, so check they smell fresh and they are closed (open shells often means they are already dead and you can’t eat them).
In the UK, most supermarket sell them already cooked. I never ever buy them, as the cooking process they use (mainly boiling) takes off the mussel all the flavours and you are only left with a tasteless piece of shellfish. Always buy fresh mussels, you will enjoy their delicious texture and flavour 10 times more!
How do I clean mussels?
There are 4 easy step to clean mussels:
- If they are not farmed, they may have some encrusting organisms attached to the shell (e.g. balanids (vulcan-shaped encrustant parassites) or serpulids (white encrusting tubes made of limestone)). In this case, use a knife (not necessarily sharp) to scrape them off each shell.
- Separate the mussels that are closed from those that are either broken or already open. If a mussel is open before you cook it, gently tap against the table or any other hard surface. If it is alive, it will automatically react and close it shell. If it stays open, it means it is already dead. If the shell is cracked, it may be have also died but it is hard to tell. In both cases, it is better to throw them away as they may be dead and therefore inedible. NOTE: when the mussels are alive (before cooking them) they should be closed. Once cooked, they should all be open! If some mussels are still closed when cooked, through them away as they were already dead (and maybe rotten) when you cooked them.
- Take off the green algal filament found on one of the sides of each mussel. Once again, you can use knife to do it in case pulling the filament with your finger is not effective or too difficult. Do not be too picky though, and if you can’t really take off the filament till the very last bit, it’s fine.
- Use a metal sponge (e.g. the ones for the pans) to scrape off any mud or residual particle from the surface of each shell. Once again, you don’t have to polish the shells, but just be sure the mud and the other larger particles that do not belong to the mussel are removed.
And…the mussels are ready to be used! Or, you can store them if you don’t want to use them straight away.
How to preserve mussels?
When still alive: Mussels are living organisms; they are alive when you buy them and they should stay alive until you decide to cook them. When a mussel dies the rotting process starts straight away and harmful bacteria may easily develop. In order to keep the mussels alive as long as possible, once you have cleaned them, you can tightly envelop them in a wet cotton kitchen-towel and place them in a large bowl in the fridge: the wet of the towel will keep them moist and the tight enveloping is essential as it prevents the shell from opening, loosing the water they have inside (essential to survive) and consequently die soon. They should be stored in the “less-cold” portion of the fridge, where vegetables are usually stored. The less you open the fridge, the better; continuous variations in temperature contribute to the opening of the shells.
I would suggest to store them in the fridge for not longer than one day. The longer you wait, the more will open and die. Before cooking them, check each mussels again and throw away the opened ones.
When cooked: once cooked, mussels can be preserved in the fridge up to 2 days, carefully stored in a food container with a lid on, to avoid too much oxygen to get in the container and contribute to bacteria growth. If you want to freeze them, same procedure; they can be preserved up to 2-3 months.
Mussels recipes? use your imagination!
Mussels are such a versatile ingredient, you can easily experiment new combinations of flavours and spices and herbs each time you cook them, until you find your perfect recipe.
The best and easiest way to cook them is steaming them. Once they have been cleaned, all you need is a pan, a lid, and a bit of liquid to steam them (wine, beer, coconut milk, Prosecco, whisky… I have tried them all!). To add some flavours, black pepper, garlic and parsley are the most common elements in the italian recipes; while in other countries they prefer lemongrass or coriander or ginger… any herb would probably work. Pick one you like, add it in the pot, steam for few minutes until they open and… enjoy this wonderful and simple food!