When I want to entertain on a budget, mussels are my go-to. They’re an impressive protein and incredibly affordable, going for anywhere from $2.50 to $6 per pound.
They cook up quickly and can be prepared with any kind of flavour you fancy. It’s hard to beat feeding a crowd for less than $30. While these tasty little bivalves can seem intimidating to those who are new to them, they are truly one of the easiest proteins to cook—and pretty difficult to mess up. Here are four delicious, easy recipes to introduce you to mussel mania, plus a few pointers on how to shop for, clean and store them.
For food safety, mussels must be cooked live. Keep them refrigerated in their net bag or something they can breathe in, covered with a damp clean cloth or paper towel. It’s best to buy mussels on the day of cooking or one day in advance, as they have a short expiration date. They should smell fresh like the sea. If they smell off or like sewage, discard them immediately.
Before cooking mussels, rinse them with cold water, scrub the shells to remove any grit or undesirable parts and then “debeard” them: This means removing the small fuzzy ear hanging from the shell. To do so, tug it toward one side of the bottom shell with a bit of force to pull off, then discard. Some mussels are de-bearded before being sold, but it’s best to double-check before cooking. Discard any mussels that are broken or cracked or do not close when tapped, as that means the mussel is no longer alive and not safe to eat.
The most common way to cook mussels is by steaming. The basic idea is to heat some liquid—such as broth, wine, beer or coconut milk—in a pot, and then add your aromatics: onions, shallots, garlic, chili peppers, lime leaves, lemongrass or whatever you like. Get some rice on the stove or prep a salad, then when your guests arrive, just add the mussels to the pot. In less than five minutes, voila: Your meal is ready! (One caveat: Before serving, make sure to discard any mussels that did not open when cooked.)
Generally, you should account for 1 to 1 ½ lb of mussels per person for a main, but if you’re using them in a pasta or baked dish, ½ lb per serving is plenty.
Mussels are best served hot, immediately after cooking. Always place one or two empty bowls on the table for guests to place their empty shells in. The shells can be composted—they are a great source of calcium and other micronutrients for soil.
This is a classic preparation for mussels—and for good reason. You can’t beat a rich cream sauce of shallots, garlic and butter. To make excellent frites without pulling out the deep fryer, I recommend trying this method of first blanching the potatoes in water and then roasting in the oven with olive oil. This prevents the potatoes from drying out so they stay moist on the inside and still get crispy and golden on the outside. Get this steamed mussels recipe.
This recipe is inspired by one of my favourite sauces, which I made daily when I worked at Bar Raval, a snack bar in Toronto. Romesco is a Spanish sauce made from a base of roasted red peppers, bread, almonds, garlic and sherry vinegar. I took the flavours from the sauce—and other Spanish ingredients like chorizo and vermouth—and made it into a delicious pasta. The puréed roasted red peppers make a deliciously creamy sauce that coats the mussels, while the pasta gets topped with a crunchy, salty mix of panko, almonds and cheese. Get this mussel linguine recipe.
These mussels are topped with a cheesy mix of jalapenos and green onions and broiled in the oven until golden and bubbling. These are a great appetizer to assemble in advance and then simply broil before serving. The mussels do double duty by providing their own serving vessels, which need no clean-up. Get this mussel poppers recipe.
This is a classic Pugliese dish from the Bari region that I learned from my friend Mariella. The name comes from simply what the ingredients are; in Italian, it’s “riso, patate e cozze.” It is a classic “cucina povera” dish using ingredients that were cheap and readily available in the region. Traditionally, this recipe requires you to shuck the mussels, but to avoid injuries, I prefer to very lightly steam them open. This is a delicious bake that infuses the mussel juices into the potatoes and rice and gets topped with a crispy parmesan–bread crumb mix. Get this mussel casserole recipe.
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