I made mussels back in March and wrote this at the time, but just got around to making it postable. Enjoy!
I enjoy variety in my meals. Whenever I go out to eat, I want to try as many dishes as possible, experience a range of flavors and textures. I'm notorious for discouraging my dining companions to order duplicate dishes, and at this point I believe my husband would be surprised if I didn't sneak bites off of his plate.
I first tried mussels at the Hop Leaf in Andersonville, north of Chicago, during my 3rd year of college. The menu listed them as Brussels Mussels, they came with frites and house mayo and crusty bread for soaking up the broth, and oh my, they were delicious.
My one problem with these mussels, on subsequent visits, was that if I wasn't with people who wanted to share with me, I had consume the mussels all by myself which left me too full to want to try any other dishes. This was too much of the same thing; I craved variety.
Now? I happily make an exception for mussels, and I don't mind keeping them all to myself. My current favorites are the Mussels Rabelais, at Cafe Rabelais in Houston. (My Pompeii Mussels at Frijtz in SF were pretty good, though.)
I had read that mussels were really quite easy to cook, and so I was determined this season to make them for myself while they were still in season.
I picked the recipe for moules mariniere with saffron from Chocolate & Zucchini because a) Clotilde's instructions on prepping the mussels were clearest and made me feel the most confident, and b) I still have saffron from my trip to Thailand my senior year of high school and figured this would be a good use to put it to.
I decided to make a little-more-than-half recipe; Andrew isn't really a mussels eater so while he'd probably have a few, I'd be eating most of them myself. The recipe recommended two pounds of uncooked mussels per person for a main course, so I bought three. This may have been a little high, but I had no idea how many I would be throwing out. I bought the mussels from Whole Foods, and they were downright cheap--$3.99 a pound. If this worked out, I promised myself, I would have to make these again, for that price!
I got home with my prize and discovered what is likely the reason that most people don't make mussles at home and are willing to pay a decent amount of money to eat them at restaurants: prepping them is time consuming. First, I soaked them all together in a big bowl of water, sloshing them around so that they might knock dirt off of each other. Air bubbles rose from the bivalves as they disgorged themselves of sand and grit, reminding me that I was about to cook living creatures, which is both exciting and disturbing. Luckily, I am not a squeamish individual. After some time I threw out that water and soaked the mussels again, to get rid of as much remaining sand as possible.
After this second soak, the fun began. One by one, I picked up each individual mussel and inspected it. I checked for cracks or holes, scrubbed off any grime still adhered to the shell, and removed the "beard," the hairlike fibers coming out of the shell. This part could be a little gruesome; at one point I swear I felt the mussel tugging back, and when I finally freed the stuff some flesh came away with it. If you are at all squeamish, this is not for you. Finally, I also checked to make sure that the two halves of shell were sealed tight. If the shell is not tightly sealed, the mussel is probably dead and should be discarded. If the mussel is dead, there's no telling how long it's been dead; if it's been dead for some time, harmful bacteria may have begun to grow. So, it's simpler to just not take the risk--even though I swear some of the ones I had to eliminate had been closed during the soaking process.
If the shell is not closed tightly, you're supposed to tap it gently with your fingernail; if the mussel is still alive, the shell will close within a minute. It's not a quick snap or anything like that, but rather a slow motion. I saw it happen once. And just once. Of all of partially-open shells I found, only one actually showed signs of life. I ended up with a sink lined with mussels and was feeling fairly discouraged, especially since some of the larger ones in the haul had proven to not be viable.
At this point, everything pretty much comes together on its own.
Onions and garlic in butter? Done. Add mussels, cover. They release a lot of liquid and steam in their own juices, almost all the way before you add whatever liquid you're going to add. This recipe called for champagne, but because I didn't feel like opening a bottle we weren't going to finish right then (this was lunch and there were only two of us), I decided to finish off a bottle of French vermouth I had in the fridge. Saffron and black pepper, and... done. Really. After all that prep work, it takes about ten minutes to finish the dish.
I definitely want to make mussels again, and try some other recipes. I think it was a mistake to use the vermouth; it overpowered the other flavors, ended up dominant, and that wasn't really what I was going for. I couldn't taste the saffron at all. I think I'll try French style next, like at Rabelais (white wine and cream, mmmm).
If it weren't for all the prep that goes into preparing mussels, I'm pretty sure that everyone who enjoys eating them would make them at home all the time. Cooking them really is that simple. If you have someone helping you clean and inspect the little suckers, I bet it goes a lot faster. The next time I make mussels, I'm going to invite friends over to share them with me. And if you offer to help prep, I bet an invitation will come your way!