Tom Fitzmorris: Black Mussels-1 of 33 best seafoods

The Food Show with Tom Fitzmorris
March 20, 2017 - 11:53 am

Mussels are closely related to oysters. They have bivalve shells, thinner and smoother than those of oysters. They hang on anything in the water that will hold them (including other mussels), and filter sea water for nutrients. The meat inside the shell looks like that of an oyster, just smaller, and a different color (the males are orange, the females a cream color). Unlike oysters, however, they’re not especially good raw–either from a taste or health perspective.

The best mussels are the blue (almost black) mussels from both Atlantic coasts, where they grow in seemingly inexhaustible numbers. They are the ones that inspire the world’s most avid mussel-eaters: the Belgians. They and the other people along the North Sea coast eat mussels the way Louisiana people eat crawfish: by the bucket. On our side of the ocean, the same mussels are at their best in New England and Canada, with Prince Edward Island being the most celebrated source.

We like oysters so much that it’s strange we didn’t embrace mussels sooner. It wasn’t until about fifteen years ago that they became common on New Orleans menus. Before then, any chef who brought them in wound up eating them himself. Now mussels–steamed in their shells and accompanied by a pile of fresh-cut fries–are in every French bistro, and many other kinds of restaurants, too. The reason for the sudden appearance is that the bivalves are now cleaned well at the source, removing all the work of debearding from the cook. And, like lots of other seafood, they’re shipped by air everywhere.

As is true for oysters, there are many ways to prepare mussels. Most of the recipes involve steaming them in their shells in a pan of wine, lemon juice, savory herbs, and (sometimes) cream or tomato sauce. They cook very quickly, or should. That explains most of the problems restaurants have with mussels: they cook them so long that they shrivel down to nothing. And there’s another reason for the many scrawny, overcooked mussels I find in some places. The quality of mussels varies wildly. Today they may be plump and perfect; tomorrow, there’s almost nothing inside the shell. Despite that, many chefs cook, serve, and charge as if the mussels are at their peak.

Restaurateurs would prefer you didn’t know that mussels are very, very cheap. A restaurant can make a profit selling three dozen of them for less than $20. Never accept fewer than a dozen for an appetizer of two dozen for an entree.

Unacceptable Alternative. Green-lipped mussels are well-named. The inside rim of the shell is an attractive iridescent green. These come from New Zealand and Thailand, almost always frozen, usually on just one shell (the dead giveaway). They are bigger than blue mussels, but distinctly less good–maybe because of the long shipping time. I’ll get back with you when I can try them at the source.




Mussels in Ghent-Style Wine Sauce

The best mussels I ever ate were in a big restaurant (I don’t remember the name, but it was in the former town hall) in the center of Ghent in Belgium, on the third day of our honeymoon. They were awash in what they called a wine sauce, although it seemed more like a cream sauce to me. It’s a Belgian classic, and no place in the world is more enthusiastic about mussels than the Belgians.

Mussels are very inexpensive, so buy plenty of them. The best are the black-shell mussels from Prince Edward Island in Canada. (I do not recommend the green-lipped mussels from New Zealand.) Mussels should be tightly closed; if the shell gapes a little, tap it. If it doesn’t close, pitch it. Although most of the mussels I’m finding in stores these days are pre-washed, scrubbing them and removing the byssus (“beard”) is essential. After they pop open in the pan, check them to see whether they need to be washed inside even a little more, as sometimes they do.

Mussels cook very quickly, and they shrivel up if you cook them too long. So get them out of there at the first sign that they’re heated through.

8 dozen mussels

1 onion, chopped coarsely

1 Tbs. coarsely-cracked pepper

1 tsp. thyme

Stems from 1 bunch parsley

2 cups dry white wine


1/2 stick butter

1 heaping Tbs. flour

1 onion, pureed roughly

2 cloves garlic, pureed roughly

1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 tsp. saffron

4 sprigs flat parsley leaves, chopped

2 green onions, chopped

1. After cleaning the mussels well, put them into a very large heavy pot with all the other non-sauce ingredients plus 1/4 cup of water. Put the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. After a couple of minutes, vigorously shake the pot to allow the unopened mussels to work their way to the bottom and open. Steam for about four minutes, or until all the mussels have opened.

2. Remove the mussels to a strainer over a bowl to catch all the juices. After they cool for three or four minutes, rinse the inside of the shells in a bowl of water, and remove any beards that may remain.

3. Add the collected mussel juices back to the pot and strain through the finest strainer you have or cheesecloth.

4. To begin the sauce, heat the butter in a large saucepan until it bubbles, and make a blond roux with the flour. Add the onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Cook for about two minutes–until the garlic is fragrant.

5. Add the mussel juices and, over medium-low heat, bring to a light boil and hold there for about eight minutes. Add the cream, saffron, and parsley, and return to a light boil for about three or four more minutes. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

6. Place a dozen mussels in a large broad-rimmed soup bowl, and ladle the sauce over them. Top with chopped green onions. Provide hot loaves of French bread, damp towels, and a bowl for the shells.

Serves one mussel fanatic or four normal people.

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