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The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein
Cleaner than ever before, plumper than their wild ancestors, and consistently fresh and uniform, cultivated mussels are still amazingly cheap and plentiful. American black-shelled mussels retain their good looks, buttery, briny flavor, and sweet, elegant juices to every preparation we can throw at them. Once a poor man's food, growing along seaside rocks and docks like barnacles, now anyone can cook them, since a good mussel dish requires nothing more than a closed pot and a few drops of water (even better with the addition of some wine and garlic). But mussels can also achieve greatness.
The standard method for cooking mussels, which results in an exceptional broth, is to sweat (gently cook over low heat to extract juices) aromatic vegetables like onions, shallots, and garlic in olive oil. Add plenty of mussels and a splash of wine, and cover. Raise the heat to high, and cook until the shells open. After transferring the mussels to a serving plate, most chefs reduce the broth to concentrate its flavors, then finish it with a nugget of whole butter before basting it over the mussels and serving them with crusty bread for dipping. The classic side dish for mussels in Belgium is frites, double-cooked fried potatoes.
Variations for steamed mussels are endless. Portuguese chefs include bay leaves and bell peppers with the aromatic vegetables, and add slices of chorizo sausage with the mussels. Mussel broth marries beautifully with the tang of tomatoes, so moules mariniere consists of mussels steamed not in wine but in herb-laced tomato sauce. This is also delicious over pasta. Spanish paellas call for mixtures of seafood and other ingredients, but an all-mussel paella is fabulous, and ecologically sound. Mussels, like clams, actually contribute to marine environmental health by ridding the water of excess nutrients and phytoplankton. Mussel farming is one of the greatest accidental benefits mankind has ever given back to nature.
Mussel broth makes great soup. By itself, it's a nourishing, comforting dish. But it's also a great base for noodle soups that can be garnished with leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, and mussels. Extra broth from cooked mussels should always be saved as a stock for seafood risottos, stews, and sauces.
No success story trumps the adoption of widespread mussel aquaculture in America. These filter feeders strain ten to fifteen gallons of water daily, gleaning for algae, phytoplankton, bacteria, and organic matter. In the process of fattening up, they remove excessive algae blooms from coastal waters. Since fertilizer-intensive farming near waterways and wetlands introduces excessive nutrients in those waters, algae blooms have become a big problem, starving estuaries of oxygen as the algae decays. But the advent of large-scale mussel farms has changed all that. The mussels thrive on the plentiful algae, fattening up as they filter excessive organic matter from the water. The results: plump mussels and clean coastal estuaries.
Farmed mussels are cleaner, without seabed mud and grit, and safer, grown in controlled waters. While wild mussels come up tangled in "beards" of fiber they use to hold onto rocks, cultivated ones are mostly beardless (and barnacle-less). They represent most of the mussels sold in the United States. Three types of mussel are cultivated in American waters—blue mussels on the Northeast coast and in the Pacific, California mussels from Alaska to Baja, California, and Mediterranean mussels, grown in the Pacific Northwest. A small number of jumbo New Zealand green mussels are imported, mostly frozen. These are also sustainably farmed.
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