Mussels are one of those sexy, evocative dishes that seems best executed by a fancy-pants chef at a corner bistro, but a big bowl of the bivalves is one of the most weeknight-friendly meals you can make. If you've ever been wary of cooking shellfish at home, mussels are a great place to start.
Photo: Claire Lower
Not only are they an absolute pleasure to eat, but they cook super quickly, and the accompanying broth is the most forgiving and adaptable liquid you'll ever throw together. We'll start with a very simple recipe, but first, some mussel-buying tips:
- Get fresh, always, without exception. Frozen mussels have a weird, kind of mealy texture.
- Do not buy them more than a day or two ahead of time. You can keep them alive in the fridge overnight pretty easily, but more than a couple of days is pushing it (they will start dying).
- Don't buy any mussels that are cracked or open. These mussels are dead and will taste bad.
Store your mussels in a bowl, covered with a damp paper towel in the fridge. Keep them in there until right before you plan to cook them. While they're chilling, gather your other ingredients and get everything ready. For 450g of mussels (enough for two people or one very hungry person), you will need:
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 shallot, sliced thin or diced
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1/2 cup of white wine
- 1/2 cup stock or broth, the flavour of which is really up to you
- A sprig or two of thyme
- A glug of cream if you want a creamy broth
- A couple of lemon wedges
- Fresh parsley, chopped fine
You'll notice that there's no salt in this recipe. This is because mussels are from the ocean, and come with their own briny goodness, and any extra sodium chloride will make your broth too salty.
Behold, the beard of a mussel.
The very first thing you'll need to do is clean the little guys, rinsing them with cold water and removing their beards. (This is one of the few cases when I'm in favour of beard removal.) The beard comes off quite easily; just give it a firm tug. If you encounter any cracked or wide-open mussels, toss 'em. If you encounter just kinda open mussels, give them a tap and see what they do. If they close, they're still alive, and good to go. Once you've cleaned them up, pop 'em back in the fridge while you ready the broth.
Melt your butter in a medium pot over medium-high heat, then add your shallots and cook until they just soften. Add your garlic, and cook until it's a light golden brown.
Ignore the damage I inflicted on my poor pot.
Get some good deglazing action going by dumping in your wine and giving everything a little stir. (No need to be picky with the wine, unless you're going to drink the rest, and even then maybe you don't need to be picky, depending on your lifestyle.) Throw in your thyme, and let the alcohol burn off for a bit, reducing the volume by about half. If you're not sure if it's reduced enough, give it a taste; it shouldn't have much of a bite to it.
Add your stock or broth, bring everything to a boil, and dump your mussels in the pot.
Let them cook for three minutes, giving them a stir every minute or so. After that time has elapsed, remove the guys who've opened up, and keep cooking any that haven't. If the rest don't open after a total of six minutes, give up on them, for they are not meant to be.
Spoon your briny, sweet and plump treasures into a bowl, and add a splash of cream to the broth if you fancy. Bathe those babies in broth, squeeze some lemon on there, and sprinkle them with chopped parsley. Serve with hunks of roughly torn bread for soaking up the flavorful liquid. That's it. Dinner is done, and it's a good one.
Once you've mastered this simple mussel recipe, flex your creative culinary side and go crazy riffing. Ginger and lemongrass are pretty excellent add-ins, as is bacon, and I've even seen mussels served in a tomato-y broth with mini meatballs. The world is your mussel, do with it what you will.
One variation I'm not a fan of, however, is cooking them in your pressure cooker. I mean, you can if you really want to, but these things already cook in three minutes, and waiting for your cooker to come to pressure actually makes it a more time consuming process. You're also more likely to overcook the delicate little guys, making them rubbery and sad. Very few things in this world are as elegantly and simply executed as a beautiful pot of mussels; don't complicate it.
This is part of The Grown-Up Kitchen, Lifehacker's series designed to answer your most basic culinary questions and fill in any gaps that may be missing in your home chef education.