Mussel Power

OK, this bivalve's not what folks think of when the subject's seafood, but it still boasts a strong following

March 29, 2000|By Joe Stumpe | Joe Stumpe,KNIGHT RIDDER/ TRIBUNE

"Yum!" said the checkout woman scanning the bag of mussels. "I haven't had those in forever."

Such is the enthusiasm of many people for mussels. Their distinctive sea-sweet flesh, ease of preparation and visually dramatic presentation are all ideal for the home cook.

Lightly steamed with white wine and garlic, sitting atop a bowl of pasta or broiled a la oysters Rockefeller, mussels star in a variety of appetizer and main dishes.

And yet, as the second part of the woman's statement shows, mussels aren't the first thing that springs to mind when most shoppers think seafood.

Part of that may be attributed to unfamiliarity. Bivalves, enclosed in shells and lacking appendages, are a little different from most animals that make their way to our dinner plates.

Then there's the squeamishness factor. Fresh mussels are supposed to be kept alive until they're cooked -- indeed, they should be discarded if they're not (more on the frozen, precooked variety later).

Finally, there's the reality that fresh mussels aren't always as readily available as one might wish. We discovered this recently even though the cooler months -- November through April -- are considered prime time for mussels.

When shopping for fresh mussels, look for mussels displayed on ice. Then ask for only those with shells tightly closed, which indicates they are alive. Ask the store to put a little ice in the bag with the mussels for the trip home, and refrigerate immediately.

Often, however, the mussels come pre-bagged. If so, ask the person in charge of the store's seafood about their quality; most will be honest, preferring happy to disappointed customers. In any case, you must inspect them individually before cooking.

Heat and a lack of moisture cause mussels to open and die. However, a mussel whose shell has opened doesn't necessarily have to be discarded. Tap an opened mussel on the shell with a fork or knife; if it begins to close, it is alive and can be prepared for eating.

It is not unusual to have to discard several mussels in a 2-pound bag. This doesn't seem to reflect on the quality of the rest. But if you have to discard many more than that, you can feel justified in returning them to the store for your money back.

The health risks of eating a dead mussel increase the longer it's been dead; individual reactions to toxicity vary greatly.

The classic method of preparing mussels -- Mussels Mariniere -- is simplicity itself. Put a cup of dry white wine in a pot and add chopped garlic, a little olive oil and red pepper flakes, basil or parsley. Add the mussels (you may do this in batches, depending on the size of the pot), cover and bring to a boil. Peek inside after 3 to 5 minutes and remove any mussels that have opened; they're ready to eat. Cover and check again after two minutes. The rest should have opened; discard any that haven't. Overcooking the mussels will make them tough.

Set the cooked mussels in a serving dish and pour the cooking juice over them. Bits of garlic and seasoning will cling to the blue-black shells and pearly meat, creating a lovely tableau. Be sure to serve with plenty of good bread to dip in the delicious juice.

Mussels can be steamed over practically any liquid, such as a pasta sauce. The mussels will flavor the sauce and vice versa.

Steaming is also the first step in more elaborate preparations, such as "stuffed" or "gratineed" mussels. In these, the cooked mussel is detached from the shell, with the bottom half of the shell retained as a serving "platter." The mussel is topped with a savory mixture (sometimes the mussel meat is chopped and incorporated into the mixture itself), then placed in the oven for a short time.

Many recipes call for removing the "beard," or dark tuft of threads with which mussels attach themselves to rocks and other objects while growing. These have already been removed in the vast majority of mussels that reach this market.

Also available are green-lipped mussels imported from New Zealand. They are usually sold already cooked and frozen on the half shell. Their orange and white meat, set on a green and brown shell, makes an attractive presentation. Although they can be slightly rubbery compared to the fresh variety, they may be perfect for someone who doesn't want to deal with the vagaries of finding and preparing fresh mussels.

Mussels Mariniere

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer; 2-3 as a main dish

2 pounds fresh mussels

1 cup white wine

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Wash the mussels. Place the wine, garlic, olive oil and pepper flakes in the bottom of a pot or saucepan. Add the mussels (you may have to do this in two batches, depending on the size of the cooking container), cover and cook over medium heat until the mussels open, about 3 to 5 minutes. Discard any mussels that don't open.

Place mussels in large tureen or bowls and pour cooking juice over them.

Mussels Stewed With Tomatoes and Feta

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer; 2-3 as a main dish

2 tablespoons olive oil

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