Considered a staple in European cuisine for centuries, mussels are finally coming of age on American menus. Diners are appreciating the mollusk’s sweet, rich meat and chefs can abide by their versatility and consistency. While most commonly—if not simply—steamed in savory broth and served with crusty bread and a glass of wine, these bivalves also stand up to broiling, stuffing, baking and frying.
The prosperity of aquaculture has ensured the availability of high-quality product both domestically and abroad. Raised in farms attached to long fiber ropes, cultivated mussels never touch the sandy ocean bottom and tend to be clean upon delivery, requiring little preparation before cooking. The meat is sweet, firm and milder tasting than wild varieties.
Farms also monitor water quality and food availability, to avoid seasonal inconsistencies. The West Coast mussel season is typically November through April to avoid spring’s “red tide,” an influx of microscopic organisms that can make mussels unsafe to eat. However, aquaculture technology now makes domestic mussels available year-round.
While farm-raised products are carefully monitored, mussels still require careful attention during preparation. Live mussels need to breathe, and should be refrigerated under a wet towel for no more than two days. Uncultivated mussels may contain sand and grit, and benefit from a soaking in salt water prior to cooking (1⁄2 cup salt to 1 qt. water). Remove grit and barnacles by brushing mussels with a stiff brush under cold running water. Remove the beard—the tuft of hairs sticking out the side—with a firm yank. Discard mussels that are light (they may be dehydrated, dead or even empty), or heavy with mud and sand, as well as those that refuse to snap shut after a tap on the shell.
While dozens of mussel species exist around the world, the following are most commonly available in today’s kitchens.
Blue: Found in the Mediterranean and on both coasts (from Alaska to Baja in the Pacific, and from northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico on the Atlantic side), these are the most common variety. Many hail from Prince Edward Island, and are praised by chefs for their consistent size. Blues thin, dark indigo-to-black shells measure 2-3-in. long, and their tan meat is tougher than oysters or clams, but sweet and delicious. Blue mussels spawn in warm waters, so eating season is November through April. This variety is perfect for steaming.
Green: These are more commonly known as New Zealand green-lipped mussels for their place of origin—and the shell’s bright, emerald-green hue. These specimens feature plump, salmon-colored meat. Their large shells make them excellent for stuffing and baking.
Mediterranean: The deceptive name of this mollusk refers to its origin. Today Mediterranean mussels actually flourish in the Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike other varieties, Mediterranean mussels spawn in winter, making them readily available during spring and summer when Blues and Greens are spawning.