Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Photo by Olga Berman

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.

Photo by Olga Berman

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.

Photo by Olga Berman

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!


4 Responses to “Mussel Lessons with Olga”

  1. Ashley Cardona

    Jenny, it’s ridiculous how much I enjoy reading your blog. I want to go make mussels now. Thanks for the great tips.

    • Jenny Holm

      Yay!! I’m so happy to hear that 🙂 Thanks for writing to tell me so, Ashley! I hope you’re doing well.

  2. Elizabeth

    Glad to know you’ve discovered mussles Jenny.

    My first introduction and love affair with them began 30 years ago on a family sailing trip off the cost of northern Maine. We had tucked into a sheltered cove off an unpopulated island for the night. As we sailed into the cove I saw all these black rocks…turned out the rocks were literally covered with thousands of mussles. Guess what we had for dinner that evening?

    Whenever I’ve had mussles over the past 30 years (fairly frequently) the memory of that very special meal comes to mind. It can’t be reduplicated, ever, but the memory remains vivid.

    My family (5 of us) gathered the mussels from the rocks while the Captain and his wife made the fire pit to cook them in. The pit was made of rocks, the mussels were cleaned (but not as meticulously as you described) and then placed on the bed of hot rocks along with plenty of garlic , fresh herbs and beer. Seaweed was placed on top of the whole thing and they were steamed to perfection. We sat on the boat and gorged ourselves on these amazing gifts from the sea while the sun sunk into the horizon.. We tossed the shells and our concerns back into the water…pure bliss!

    Thank you for bringing that memory back to mind again.

    • Jenny Holm

      Wow, Elizabeth, what a beautiful story that is, and how wonderful that you get to relive it every time you eat mussels! Thanks for sharing it with me!


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