Quick-cooking, sweetly flavored and with a friendly price tag (between $5 and $7 per pound), mussels are a near-perfect food. If you’re already a fan, you’re nodding your head, and if you’re not yet familiar with mussels, let’s remedy that.

Let’s first talk about flavor. Mussels are briny yet sweet and mild, with no “fishy” notes. The bite-size morsel inside the shell is succulent and tender – no rubber-band chewiness like with a clam. Its neutral taste pairs nicely with seasonings across the spectrum, from creamy to herbal to spicy, and the nooks and crannies of meat plus the cup of the shells help mussels capture and deliver flavor in every bite.

Almost all of the mussels you’ll buy retail are farm-raised, meaning they’re plentiful year-round. Before your eco-alarm starts beeping, know that mussel farming is one of the most sustainable and clean seafood cultivation programs around, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. You’ll find good mussel farms in the Atlantic off the northeastern coast of the United States as well as in the Pacific Northwest. Mussels from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, sometimes labeled P.E.I., are excellent, as are Penn Cove mussels grown off Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state.

There are many species, but blue or Mediterranean mussels are the most common and delicious, both with fairly small (1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches long), blue-black shells and ivory to coral-pink meat.

Mussels are easy to prepare. First, keep them cold and damp, but with plenty of air flow – they need to breathe and, ironically, do not want to be submerged in water. A good method is to put them in a colander set into a larger bowl and set a bag of ice on top, then put the whole arrangement in the refrigerator; use within two days, the sooner the better.

Cleaning farmed mussels generally means a simple rinse and a sort to make sure they’re all alive. Most of them will have tightly closed shells, but some may be “gaping,” meaning they are reacting to their environment or have died. Give any open mussels a tap or a gentle squeeze, which should prompt them to start to close; all you need to see is a slight movement. If they don’t react, pitch them.

Also get rid of any mussels that are smashed (but if the shells are simply cracked, keep them). Then comes the slightly tedious task, which is pulling off the byssus, or beard, a small length of what looks like black threads twisted together. This is the mussel’s attachment to the rocks or rope or whatever it was growing on. The byssus is not unsafe for diners, but it is unattractive.

To remove the byssus, grasp it with your thumb and forefinger or between your thumb and the blade of a paring knife and give a sharp tug toward the hinged end of the shell. Usually, it will release from the shell with one tug. If not, cut it off close to the shell with the paring knife.

Clean your mussels just before you are ready to cook, because once you yank off that byssus, the mussel may die, and you want to cook them while they are alive.

Steaming is the best way to cook mussels. Here we’ll talk about a classic stove-top method, but you can also steam mussels in the oven at high heat in a roasting pan or over an outdoor grill, corralled within a paella pan or Dutch oven.

When deciding how to spice mussels, think of creating “layers” of flavor within the dish: the aromatics, the cooking liquid, and the finishing touches. Start by gently sauteing your aromatics (onions, shallots, garlic, chiles, ginger, for example) to release their flavors. Then add a small amount of liquid, about 1 cup for up to 3 pounds of mussels, a bit more for larger batches. You want enough to provide a bunch of steam as well as a tasty broth, but not so much that you actually boil the mussels.

Whatever method, be sure your cooking vessel is large. You need to tumble the mussels around during cooking, and you can’t do that if your pot is filled to the brim. You also need a vessel with a lid, though aluminum foil can do the job.

Once your aromatics and liquid are boiling, add all the mussels at once, cover the pan, and let them steam, shaking the pot vigorously every 30 seconds or so. If you’re cooking more than a couple of pounds, open the pot and stir the mussels around for even cooking.

After around five minutes, most of the mussels should be cooked and open. If you see a lot still closed, continue cooking for another few seconds. You also can remove the open ones and give the stubborn ones a final blast of steam. You will always have a handful that don’t open. Toss those out.

Transfer the mussels to serving bowls and then taste the broth. If it seems to lack concentrated flavor, simmer it for a few more minutes, then taste again. Mussels do provide a bit of their own salinity, so I usually add just a pinch of salt. A pat of butter can give the broth body.

Finish the dish with a shower of fresh herbs and serve with a side of grilled bread for dunking in the broth, and a big bowl for the empty shells, which will fill up fast.

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Classic Mussels Marinière

30 minutes

2 to 4 servings

This is one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” dishes, where simple ingredients conspire to make something sublime – all in about 15 minutes. You can grill the bread before you start steaming the mussels or grill it as the mussels are cooking so it stays nice and hot.

Grill or broil a few slices of a rustic bread, such as ciabatta, brush them with olive oil and serve alongside to sop up the broth. And a bottle of cold muscadet makes a good pairing.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound mussels

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup (2 ounces) chopped shallot or onion

3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Kosher salt, if needed

DIRECTIONS

Rinse the mussels, scrape the exteriors of any that have little barnacles on them, and pull or cut off any beards.

Check over the mussels to look for “gapers” – mussels that are open. Tap or gently squeeze any open ones and see if they start to close; the movement might be subtle. If there is no response, the mussel is probably no longer alive, so toss it out.

In a large pot with a lid over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until soft and fragrant but not browned, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and simmer until the wine is reduced by about half, about 5 minutes.

Add the mussels to the pot, cover and cook, shaking the pot every few moments, as though you’re making popcorn. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until most of the mussels have opened. If there are many mussels still closed, cook for another 30 seconds or so; don’t worry too much about overcooking the mussels, as they are fairly forgiving.

Toss in the parsley and stir the mussels a bit to distribute the herbs. Lift out the mussels with tongs or a big slotted spoon and divide them between two big bowls. Taste the broth and season with salt, if needed. If the flavor is concentrated and delicious, swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and pour it over the mussels. If the broth seems a bit bland, simmer it for a few more seconds to reduce and concentrate the flavor, and then add the butter and pour it over the mussels. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired. Serve warm.

VARIATIONS:

Mussels in Curried Cream: While cooking the shallot and garlic, stir in 1 tablespoon curry powder (hot or mild). After the wine has reduced by half, add 3/4 cup heavy cream and boil until it has reduced by a little more than half, another 5 minutes or so. Finish with slivered fresh basil along with the parsley.

Mussels in Ginger-Chile Coconut Broth: Substitute a neutral oil, such as vegetable or grapeseed, to cook the shallot and garlic and add 1 tablespoon each finely chopped fresh ginger and finely chopped fresh chile (hot or mild). Instead of the white wine, add 1 cup of full-fat coconut milk and 3 tablespoons of fresh lime juice. Finish with roughly chopped cilantro instead of parsley.

Nutrition per serving (based on 4), with 2 slices of ciabatta | Calories: 267; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Cholesterol: 53 mg; Sodium: 543 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 3 g; Protein: 17 g.


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