When my friend Olga responded to my tweet about mussels with an offer to teach me how to cook them at home, my eyes widened with excitement–and fear. The idea of feeding anyone mollusks that I had prepared myself filled me with terror. I feared unleashing upon my guests the hordes of gut-wrenching illnesses I imagined these creatures to harbor inside their shadowy shells. Nevertheless, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Lesson #1: Apparently you can buy mussels at the grocery store. This seems logical now, but never having seen them on display anywhere, I had no idea this was true. They were hiding them behind the seafood counter this whole time. I got mine at Whole Foods, where they pick through the mussels before weighing them out to ensure that all the shells are closed (i.e. they’re not giving you any dead mollusks).
I settled on one pound per person (including shell weight), which is enough for pleasantly large portions. They pack them in bags of ice and tell you to get them into the fridge or cook them as soon as possible. I’m not sure how long fresh mussels keep, but I wasn’t taking any chances: I bought them on the afternoon of the lesson so they’d only sit in my fridge for a coupe of hours.
When Olga arrived, we got right down to the business of cleaning the mussels, which turned out ot be not nearly so messy as I thought. Not messy at all, in fact.
Lesson #2: Just to be sure that the men behind the seafood counter hadn’t missed any opened shells, we picked through the little guys ourselves. We found a couple that were slightly opened. Olga directed us to tap them a few times firmly on a hard surface and let them sit for a few minutes to see if they closed up. They did, meaning they were safe to eat. If they hadn’t, we would have tossed them out. One or two shells had cracked parts, so we threw them away. We used pliers to yank out the tiny “beard” that protrudes from inside some of the shells. (Tweezers would also have worked, but pliers lend more oomph to the job.) Finally, we rinsed each shell off under running water to get rid of any grit or sand.
With the clean mussels piled in a bowl in the fridge, we worked on preparing the ingredients for our accompanying simmering sauces. I had chosen two mussel recipes from Olga’s blog, Mango & Tomato, one a classic white wine and garlic preparation, the other a heartier Indian style using coconut milk and lemongrass.
Lesson #3: Knife skills! I took a one-evening class in this once, but I still need a lot more practice to be able to cut quickly and evenly without fear of chopping my fingers off. Olga recommended getting a larger cutting board so you don’t have to worry about things falling off the edge all the time, and have space to brush chopped items off to the side while you cut something else in the middle. (Less mess.) She encouraged me to “choke up” on the knife handle in order to exercise better control over it: my thumb and index finger should actually rest on either side of the blade itself. (This is a large chef’s knife we’re talking about, whose blade is wide enough to accommodate this grip.) And she reminded me to always press away from myself in an almost circular motion while I cut. The movement reminds me of the way the connecting rod between two train wheels moves.
Lesson #4: The recipes couldn’t have been easier to follow. We prepared each sauce individually in a wide, high-sided pan with a cover. Once all the ingredients are simmering, you simply add the mussels and let them steam, covered, until all the shells have opened up (about 5-7 minutes).
We served the mussels in the shell with plenty of sauce ladled over them and crusty baguette on the side. The best parts are picking the mussel out of its hiding place with a fork and chasing it with a hunk of bread you’ve dragged languorously through the sauce in the bottom of your bowl, then washing it all down with a long sip of white wine.
Having added this new skill to my culinary repertoire, I feel like my capacity to bring pleasure to myself and others through food has increased by another bound. Thanks to Olga for making it possible!