This week we’re featuring an old shellfish favorite — mussels. In fact, “mussel” is a common name used for several families within the clam species. We typically identify mussels by their elongated dark shells, which are distinct from the common oval shaped ones we associate with clams.
Mussels are known for their distinct ocean flavor that varies slightly from other clam varieties. They are delicious cooked any which way – boiled, steamed, fried, barbecued, roasted, or smoked. Because of their palatability and extensive culinary potential, mussels have been popular throughout the history of the United States.
Centuries ago, Native Americans ate mussels extensively while also using their shells to make tools and jewelry. This obsession with mussels continued after the Europeans arrived to the continent. In fact, starting in the late 19th century, mussel shells were used as buttons up until the invention of plastic.
Mussels are an interesting ecological phenomenon in that they are filter feeders. This means that mussels do not travel to catch their food, the food comes to them. Mussels draw water into their gills and siphon out plankton and other microscopic sea animals using their cilia, or “beard.” Because of this feeding feature, gradual mussel die-offs or sudden mass mussel deaths are reliable indicators of water pollution issues or other environmental concerns, such as toxic plankton blooms.
Mussels are best when alive prior to cooking, because enzymes quickly breakdown their meat postmortem and change their appealing flavor. Their excellent ocean taste is especially brought out when served simply, for example as in the traditional French dish moules marinières, with wine, garlic, shallots, and butter. Mussels are also a great source of vitamins, such as selenium, vitamin B12, zinc, and folate.
Be sure to keep an eye out for mussels at your Chef’s Table this week!