Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Blue Mussels

You've likely seen those little sacks of blue mussels sitting on ice at your local market and, let's admit it: you may not have been very interested. I get it, because not that many years ago I was less than enthusiastic, too. From previous work, I admired mussels as the marine zoologist's "white rat" (easy to collect, easy to maintain in the lab) or the coastal scientist's canary in the coal mine (they're great for measuring contaminants in the water). But when it came time to eat, well...they just aren't oysters, are they? But after learning more about how sustainable, or better yet, beneficial, mussel aquaculture is, I've turned into a huge fan. It turns out they're delicious, inexpensive and nutritious. Plus you get to feel really good for supporting a truly sustainable form of aquaculture! 

A Brief History

There are a lot of mussel species out there, but the most common type in markets and on restaurant menus in North America is the humble Mytilus edulis, the blue mussel. Found around the world along temperate coasts, blue mussels have been eaten by humans for thousands of years and are particularly popular in Europe. Native people along America's coasts were known to have eaten them, and the Pilgrims depended on mussels in their difficult first years along the coast of shellfish-rich Cape Cod Bay. However, blue mussels never really became popular in US kitchens until World War II, when the US Government pushed canned mussels on a nation eagerly trying to avoid food shortages. In the 1970s, mussel aquaculture got its start in North America, and the mussel's popularity continues to grow in the US. 

Factual Nibbles

  • The United States imports 90 percent of its blue mussels, primarily from Canada and New Zealand.
  • Orange-tinted mussel meats are mature females, while the ivory-colored meats are males and immature females.
  • The byssal threads on mussels (the little "beard" that you remove before eating them) that are used to attach the animals to wave-swept rocks are so strong that scientists are using them as inspiration to create adhesives that don't require formaldehyde, a human carcinogen.  
  • While wild mussels can live upwards of 24 years in the wild, when farmed they are harvested at just two to three years. 

Cultivation

Blue mussels can be harvested in the wild or they can be farmed; however, most mussels that we eat in the US are farmed. Mussel farming is most often done by "seeding" young mussels on ropes or rafts, but some farmers form beds of mussels on the ocean floor. Unlike oyster farming which often requires hatcheries, to seed mussels all farmers have to do is lower some frayed rope or plastic mesh into the water column to provide a place for some of the billions of mussel larva already swimming around in late spring to settle down and grow. By fall, once they have grown to about an inch in length, they are removed from the ropes, sorted by size and then stuffed like sausages into long socks which are placed back into the water. Over a few months, the mussels actually work their way out of the socks in their never-ending quest for food, causing the socks to collapse into thin ropes in the center of the all the mussels. After two years, the mussels are about two to three inches in length and are ready to be pulled up and harvested. 

While about 700,000 pounds of farmed mussels were produced in the US in 2013, Canada dominates the market. In 2011 the country exported nearly 30 million pounds of mussels to the US, about 80 percentof which was grown in Prince Edward Island (aka, PEI). Eastern Canada is, of course, home to long, cold winters, so farmers there have to plan ahead for harvesting in frozen bays. They use GPS markers to find mussel-encrusted ropes which are hauled up by winches after workers break through the ice with chainsaws and special blades. 

Seasonality 

Blue mussels are available year round, although they peak in winter and early spring when their meat is largest. Production slows somewhat during the summer months when mussels spawn and their meat thins

Environmental Impact 

Aquaculture in ocean waters has earned a bad rap, most of it deserved. However, shellfish aquaculture is different: It's not just a sustainable way to produce food - it can actually be beneficial to the surrounding environment. 

Growing mussels on ropes submersed in coastal waters is considered to be one of the most environmentally-friendly forms of aquaculture. The mussels don't require feed because they filter their food (phytoplankton) from the water. There are few examples of disease outbreaks among farmed mussels, which means that the farms have little impact on the surrounding environment. Farmed mussels even help to reduce greenhouse gasses, because they remove carbon dioxide from the ocean as they form their shells. 

A single mussel filters up to 10 gallons of water per day as it feeds on phytoplankton, and they can improve water quality by reducing the amount of toxins and excess nutrients in coastal waters. However, mussels for human consumption must be grown in a healthy environment, free of harmful toxins that can present health risks. Aquaculture farms are regulated and inspected, so you can feel confident that while the shellfish you are eating are likely helping to reduce excess nutrients, they're not filtering out chemicals and toxins.

Characteristics 

What to Look for 

While you can buy them canned, there's no replacement for fresh mussels. Like oysters or clams, fresh mussels mean live mussels. Find sacks of mussels (usually 2 pounds) sitting on ice in your favorite market and take a moment to see if there are many open, broken shells. If many of the shells are open or cracked, then pass. Most importantly, the mussels should smell fresh - like seawater - never fishy.

Nutrition 

Blue mussels are highly nutritious. They are a particularly rich source of Vitamin B12, manganese and selenium. They also provide a significant amount of your recommended daily iron and zinc intake. A three-ounce serving provides 40 percent of your daily recommended protein needs, and most of the fat is in the form of heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Mussels are also a decent source of antioxidants and omega-3s. An added bonus: Blue mussels are low in mercury so they're safe for kids and pregnant women to eat. 

What to Do with It and Cooking 

While there are many ways to serve mussels, simplicity really works best. Your best bet is to steam them - and be sure to get creative with your liquid of choice. Wine? Beer? Vermouth? Plain old water and lemon juice? All great options! If you make extra you can even store them for a soup or chowder later on. 

Storage

Just like other shellfish, you want to keep your mussels alive and kicking right up until you cook them. Keep them cold and damp (not wet!) by storing them in the fridge in a bowl covered with a damp cloth or paper towel. You can keep them like that for a couple of days -  just make sure that before you cook them they smell like a pleasant day at the ocean, not a sad day at a rotting seaweed-covered beach. After you cook them, you can store mussels in the freezer for three to four months (chowder for later!) by removing them from the shells, placing them in an air-tight container and covering them completely with the broth you used for cooking. 

Recipe

Mussels might seem intimidating to cook, at least for those neophytes who equate shellfish with food poisoning, but have no fear! Buy your mussels from a reputable fishmonger or grocery store and you have nothing to worry about. If you consider yourself a less-than-talented home cook who likes to throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and hope for the best, mussels are your new best friends. Here is one of many quick and simple ways to prepare them. 

Steamed Mussels in White Wine

Ingredients:

2 pounds blue mussels

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup finely-chopped shallots (or red onions, or leeks, or your favorite pungent veggie)

¼ cup chopped celery

A sprig of rosemary (optional)

½ cup of white wine of your choice (dry is best)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Method:

  1. First, prep the mussels. See any with cracked shells? Discard them. Are any of the shells open? They shouldn't be - so give them a tap. If they close quickly, then they're OK to eat. If you bought farmed mussels, wash them under cold tap water and give them a quick brushing with a firm brush. If they're wild, let them soak in the refrigerator for up to 20 minutes in cold, salty water to help get rid of the grit. Next, you have to de-beard them, which means pulling the super-strong byssal threads (the "beard") towards the joint of the shell (here are some pro tips on how to de-beard). With farmed mussels, you won't have to pull many out, but wild mussels will keep you busier with their abundant beards.
  2. Add the olive oil, shallots, celery and rosemary (if using) to a large pot set over medium heat. Cook and stir the vegetables and the rosemary for a few minutes, or until softened and aromatic.
  3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer, then add the mussels. Stir, cover the pot and bring to a boil, then steam for about 5 minutes. Gently give the pot a few shakes a few times while the mussels cook.
  4. After 5 minutes, take a look at the mussels. If you're greeted with a lot of open shells, take the pot off of the stove and remove the mussels with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl (or better yet, bring the entire pot to the table with some crusty bread to sop up the aromatic juices).(See any shells that are still closed? Despite the old myth, those mussels are fine to eat.) Sprinkle the parsley over the mussels and enjoy!

 

Serves two as a main course.