Not My Mom’s Cooking: Using My Mussels

For having grown up and lived in a relatively small community in central Nebraska for a lot of their lives, my parents were fairly sophisticated eaters. It’s true when we were growing up, Mom’s cooking was pretty typical meat-and-potatoes fare. That’s what Dad wanted, and he worked hard and was hungry by the end of the day. A cobb salad with grilled chicken would not have passed muster with Mr. Gloor. Roast beef and mashed potatoes were more to his liking.

But I think Mom stretched her cooking muscles once she and Dad were semi-retired and living in Dillon, Colorado. She had more time and probably there were more interesting food supplies available to her. Seafood, for example.

I mentioned before that I enjoy going through Mom’s old recipe box. A few things in that box have surprised me, but none more than the hand-written recipe for Coquilles St. Jacques – basically scallops with mushrooms in a gruyere cheese sauce. Yum. I, of course, never remember her setting a plate of Coquilles St. Jacques down before me in Columbus, Nebraska; however, Jen is positive that Mom actually made such a dish at one time or another. Not for me, but then Mom always did like her best.

Anyhoo, while good seafood wasn’t readily available in Columbus in the 1950s and 60s, Mom and Dad did like them some seafood later in their lives. Bring on the shrimp, the mussels, the oysters, the clams; you name it, they enjoyed it. Thankfully, they had a daughter who lived on the east coast and who frequently traveled with them to places like Florida where seafood was plentiful. Mom could order a huge dish of mussels and eat every single one.

But I don’t think she ever made mussels herself.

For the longest time, mussels intimidated me. There was always all that talk about the beard of the mussel. It seemed so scary. That, and getting the sand out of the shells. I was afraid to tackle them. Plus the whole notion that they’re alive. Eeeeeewwwww.

But I did. And it couldn’t have been less terrifying or more easy. So I serve them a lot when I’m in the mood to entertain with something impressive and festive-looking, but easy. There are many delicious recipes, but mussels in white wine and garlic are my favorite, so that’s what I always make.

I tackle the so-called beard using a needle-nose pliers that you can get at any hardware store. My mussels almost always come from Whole Foods, and their fishmongers carefully sort them so that there are few with broken shells. The mussels are largely farm-raised, and I find most of them don’t even have a beard. (Wild mussels use their beard to attach themselves to rocks or bottoms of bridges. Farm-raised mussels sit in chaise lounges and soak up the sun!) But if they do, simply grab the beard with the pliers and gently pull it out.

Ina Garten suggests soaking the mussels in water into which you have tossed a handful of flour. According to her, the mussels open their shells to eat the flour and the sand is dislodged. I find that isn’t necessary in the way that it IS necessary for clams, which live in the sand. I simply rinse them and rinse them and rinse them again, and I have never had sandy mussels.

One thing to remember when cleaning mussels, however, is that you must take the time to look at each mussel. It must be closed, or close if you tap it on the counter, and the shell must not be broken. It’s a bit time consuming, but easy enough.

Two tidbits before I give you the recipe….

First, I knew a man from Connecticut. (Sounds kind of like There was a man from Nantucket…) He was with me once in a restaurant when I ordered mussels. He laughed, and said when he was growing up on the Atlantic shores of Connecticut, they considered mussels to be “garbage fish.” Mussels were apparently very plentiful and he would find them attached to anything along the shore. Including garbage cans. They would throw them away.

Second, when Bill and I were on our European adventure, as we traveled through the Province region of France, we ate mussels, mussels, and more mussels. The first time we ordered them was in Nice, and they were all-you-could-eat moule e frites (mussels and French fries). They brought us each a bucket of mussels the size of a small garbage can, and they were DELICIOUS. Nevertheless, we couldn’t eat more than one bucket apiece. After about my fifth or sixth time eating mussels in a café along the Mediterranean, I finally told Bill, “Well, that’s it. I cannot and will not eat another mussels for a long, long time.”

I got over it.

Don’t be afraid to give these a try.

mussel wine bread

Mussels in White Wine and Garlic
Adapted from Ina Garten, Food Network

6 lbs. mussels
3 T. butter
3 T. olive oil
1 c. chopped shallots
1-1/2 T minced garlic
1 c. diced tomatoes, drained
1/3 c. chopped Italian parsley
2 T. fresh thyme leaves
1-1/2 c. white wine
2 t. salt
1 t. freshly ground pepper

Rinse the mussels very well, and allow them to soak in water for about 30 minutes. Drain the mussels, then remove any beard using your fingers or a needle-nosed pliers. Scrub the mussels if the shells are dirty. Discard any mussels whose shells aren’t tightly shut or with broken shells.

In a large non-aluminum stockpot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 5 minutes; add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes more, or until the shallots are translucent. Add the drained tomatoes, parsley, thyme, wine, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil.

Add the mussels, stir well, then cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until all the mussels are opened (discard any that do not open). With the lid on, shake the pot once or twice to be sure the mussels don’t burn on the bottom. Pour the mussels and the sauce into a large bowl and serve hot, with a baguette on the side for dunking.

Serves 4 or 5 adults

Nana’s Notes: The amount of mussels will vary according to the number of people you are serving and how much they will eat. When my grandson Alastair is eating my mussels, he can eat something in the neighborhood of 1-1/2 to 2 lbs. by himself! Adjust the other ingredients accordingly. The mussels look spectacular when they are poured into a big bowl. And taste just as good. But I like to serve them in individual bowls so that each person has their own juice in which to dip their bread. 

This post linked to the GRAND Social.

3 thoughts on “Not My Mom’s Cooking: Using My Mussels

  1. One of my very favorite dishes. Maybe I should add mussels to my “if I lived on a deserted island and could only eat three things……” Nope. Ceviche still remains.

  2. One of the times we took Mom and Dad to Old Ebbitt’s she and I ordered mussels. They were the biggest bowls I ever saw; I could hardly see Mom over her pile of mussels. We wiped them out.

    I sat at the kitchen counter in Dillon and watched mom prepare coquilles St. Jacques. It was yummy. And I do believe that Mom and Dad might have been the only people in the world to describe themselves as semi-retired when they were both working 40-hour a week jobs. Tells you how hard they worked earlier in their lives.

    I hope someday I’m brave enough to try making mussels myself!

    • See, now I know Mom liked both you and Jen best. Nary a scallop for her second-born. We will make mussels when you’re visiting, and you will be shocked at how simple it is.

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