Rising status of the lowly mussel

Long appreciated in Europe, this succulent bivalve is finally becoming an American favorite

Steam a pot of mussels, and the fresh scent of the sea will waft through your home. Plump and seductive, this delicious but underrated bivalve is finally emerging on the cooking scene after being ignored or scoffed at by many Americans.

Long appreciated in France, Belgium, and Spain, the mussel has never made it big here like its high-profile cousin, the clam. Perhaps its neglect has been due to its unappealing name, which brings to mind words like chewy and sinewy. When not overcooked, however, the mussel is a tender, succulent morsel.

I, too, was slow to taste a mussel. It was on a visit to Whidbey Island, Wash., home of the famous Penn Cove mussel, that I was lured by the wonderful garlicky, briny aroma of steamed mussels drifting down from the balcony of an outdoor restaurant. One taste made me quickly get over my initial fear of eating this delicious shellfish.

While Penn Cove mussels may not be available in stores in the East or Midwest, they can be ordered over the Internet. More commonly available in stores is the blue-black Atlantic variety from Prince Edward Island, Canada. The green-lipped variety from the South Pacific is imported as well.

Today, mussels are one of the best seafood buys. And they are shipped live and guaranteed fresh whether you live in Boston or St. Louis. Generally, commercial mussels are cultivated, making them safer to eat and easier to clean than mussels from the wild. Despite being farm-raised in a controlled environment, the cultivated mussel is very tasty.

Admiration for John Singer Sargent's idyllic painting, "The Mussel Gatherers," made me want to experience mussel gathering firsthand. But after reading a bit about shellfish poisoning, I became somewhat wary. Caution is advised when collecting mussels from the wild, since they are particularly vulnerable to pollution. The local fisheries department can tell you where it is safe to collect mussels. Also, a permit might be required.

Whether cultivated or wild, preparation of mussels is a snap. And when exposed to heat, they take only 3 to 5 minutes to open, which indicates readiness.

Mussels can be steamed or grilled, added to soup, pasta sauce, paella, or used as the centerpiece of a salad. Or, steam mussels with other seafood, such as salmon, in a hearty stew (see recipe at left). Served in bowls with its hot broth, this stew makes a midwinter feast, heartwarming and tasty.

Mastering mussels

BUYING: Mussels can be bought live, cooked, or cooked and shelled. If you buy them live, which is preferable for freshness, they should smell fresh and have shells closed. Buy a few more than you need just in case you have to discard some.

STORING: If you are not cleaning mussels immediately, remove them from bag or wrapping when you get home - they need to breathe. Store in the coldest part of your refrigerator in a wide bowl or pot covered with a wet kitchen towel.

CLEANING: Mussels that are gaping slightly should be gently tapped on the shell. If it doesn't close, discard the mussel. Also, try to move the halves of each shell back and forth. If they slide, discard; the shell may be full of mud.

Remove "beard" by running fingers down edges where the shells meet, pulling (or cutting) off any fibers - you can't always see the fibers. (Most mussels purchased today are farm-raised, so there isn't much of a beard to remove.)

Rinse mussels under cold running water and transfer to a colander. Place in a large wide bowl or pot and cover with a wet kitchen towel. Refrigerate until ready to use. Mussels will keep up to three days refrigerated. Be sure to keep towel wet. If any mussels open during storage, tap shell, and discard any mussel that does not close.

Salmon and Mussel Steamer Dinner

1/2 pound green beans, stems trimmed

1 medium yellow onion, sliced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

1-1/4 cups water

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon brown-rice vinegar

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

20 mussels, cleaned

1-3/4 pounds medium-size new potatoes, cut in half

3/4-pound salmon filet, cut into 4 equal portions

1/2 cup of pitted Kalamata olives, slivered (or more if desired)

4 branches fresh tarragon, 4- or 5-inches long

White tops of 3 green onions (scallions), cut into 3-inch-long slivers

Place green beans in a 3-quart saucepan with enough water to cover them. Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce heat to low. Cook beans for about 6 minutes or until barely tender. Reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid. Drain beans in a colander; then set aside.

Combine onion, garlic, and olive oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over medium heat until garlic releases its scent and onions become translucent. Add water, vinegar, and peppercorns. Add mussels. Cover and bring to a full rolling boil. Remove pan from heat and shake pan back and forth 5 times. Put back on burner and return to a boil. Remove and shake pan again. Return to a boil a third time; then remove from heat.

Lift mussels out of broth with tongs, draining broth back into pot. Transfer mussels to a bowl. If any mussels detach from their shells, try to put them back. Cover bowl to retain heat, and set aside. Discard unopened mussels.

Add potatoes and reserved bean liquid to pot and bring to a gentle boil. Cook potatoes until halfway done, about 8 minutes. Add salmon. Sprinkle with olive slivers and half of the tarragon. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low. Cook until fish is almost cooked through, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer salmon to individual serving bowls. Top with remaining tarragon.

Turn burner to medium-high; add mussels, beans, and green onions to broth. Cover and heat until warm, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove potatoes, beans, and green onions from pan, and divide among bowls. Place mussels around edge of bowls. Pour in broth.

Serves 4.

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