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In 1290 an Irish seaman by the name of Patrick Walton became shipwrecked at La Rochelle, a city and commune on the western coast of France. In need of food he devised a crafty method for trapping sea birds: He inserted posts in the water with netting strung between them. Walton serendipitously ended up with a side of shellfish with his poultry for the nets ensnared mussels and provided a habitat for them to thrive. This yarn is considered the basis for the first official cultivation of mussels even though the Romans had mussel beds. Regardless of the formal commencement of mussel aquaculture mussels have been consumed by man for thousands of years and may even be the first shellfish incorporated into the human diet.
Mussels are a bivalve mollusk found in fresh and salt water throughout the earth. Freshwater mussels are considered unpalatable. Mussels attach to rocks or other underwater structures by means of their byssus, or “beard”, a proteinaceous bundle of fibers. Mussels are filter feeders, i.e., they passively siphon plankton and other microscopic sea creatures from the water flowing through them. Depending on the species, mussels can vary in size from one to six inches and sport a variety of hues such as black, green, brown, etc. The Blue or Common mussel is the most common. It is found in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. Its shell is black or very dark blue. Another variety, one that is highly prized, is the Green-lipped or New Zealand mussel.
Mussels are cultivated the world over. Farmed mussels are tenderer than their wild counterparts. Small mussels are also tenderer than larger ones. Mussels are available year round but west coast specimens are often avoided in spring and summer due to red tides. Red tides are caused by surges of phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are single-celled plant-like organisms that expel neurotoxins in the water which in turn are absorbed by the filter-feeding mussels. Harmless to the mussels these toxins can be poisonous to humans. Moreover the toxins are not destroyed by cooking since they are heat stable. Mussels are generally more susceptible to pathogens than other shellfish and thus are normally not consumed raw.
Like clams and oysters, choose mussels that are tightly closed and free of any cracks in the shell. If they are slightly open and do not close when tapped, discard them. Likewise, any that do not open during cooking should be tossed. Also, avoid any that are light and seem to rattle when shaken, (indicating a dead mussel that has become detached from its shell), or that seem too heavy for their size, (indicating a dead one that has become inundated with sand). Try to use your mussels within 24 hours of purchase if not immediately.
Mussels are less gritty than oysters and clams but nevertheless need to be rinsed and scrubbed with a small brush. Remove the beard, (if visible), as close to cooking as possible since its removal can damage the mussel and cause its death. Like all shellfish, mussels can easily become overcooked and rubbery, although they can tolerate a little more heat than their other shelled brethren. Mussels also disengage from their shells more readily than other bivalves.
Mussels are amenable to a wide range of cooking techniques including simmering, steaming, baking, frying, and light broiling. As soon as they open they’re done. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to remove them as they open so the eager beavers don’t overcook waiting for the lollygaggers. Mussels can be used in salads, soups, paella, pasta dishes, and even omelets. New Zealand mussels, because they are somewhat larger, are ideal for stuffing. In my opinion though, nothing beats a bowl of steamed mussels, some good bread for dipping in the savory juice, and a crisp white wine like Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, or better yet, Champagne.
• 2 lbs. mussels
• 1 small to medium carrot, cut into small dice
• 1 stalk celery, cut into small dice
• 1 small onion, cut into small dice
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Olive oil, as needed
• 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 1 cup chicken stock
• 4 oz. dry white wine
• Chopped parsley to taste
Rinse, scrub, and de-beard the mussels, discarding any that are cracked or open and will not close.
Sauté the carrot, celery, and onion, with salt and pepper in the olive oil until softened but not brown. Add the garlic and sauté one more minute. Deglaze the pan with the stock and wine and bring to a boil. Add the mussels, cover, and cook until the mussels open.
Finish with a generous sprinkling of parsley and serve with bread for dipping in the juice.
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