30. December 2013 · Comments Off on A Brief Essay on the Bottom of the Food Chain · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

As a culture, we have learned to eat high on the the biological hog, as it were. The majority of our protein sources, if we are not of the vegan/vegetarian persuasion, come from creatures that are relatively high up the ladder as far as who eats whom. Many of our fish, even, are fish-eaters themselves requiring several pounds of other seafood to put on a pound of their own weight. Aquaculture, if done badly, can be just as polluting as factory farming. Wild-catch fish are rapidly being depleted in fisheries worldwide as demand rises.

Which leads me to ponder why we’ve largely ignored the virtues of the lower orders of the marine ecosystem. Sure, small oily fishes (which are admittedly pretty tasty in their own right) have garnered attention in trendy eateries and with those who espouse the Mediterranean diet. But I’ve always been interested in going even lower, to the bivalves and molluscs. Sure, oysters are the darlings of the filter-feeder set, eaten raw and roasted with refined sauces and fine wines at the fanciest of tables. Clams have their fans, particularly in the northeastern parts of the US.

But for pure availability and bang-for-buck, we have to talk about mussels.

Mussels are “common”. They have little pretension attached to them. At recent prices, you’d pay about $40-45 for a 50-count of cultured New England or Chesapeake oysters, and about $60 for premium varieties like Blue Points. A bag of 50 cherrystone clams will run about $20. By comparison, farmed blue mussels can frequently be found on sale for as little as $2.00 a pound, especially during winter months when they’re plump and plentiful. A pound of mussels is a decent sized meal for the average diner.

Ecologically, mussel farming is arguably one of the cleanest forms of aquaculture. Suspended line farming, the most common sort, relies on plentiful wild spat (immature specimens) which mature in place until harvest. As they are filter feeders which require no supplemental feeding, they consume algae, turbidity, and excess nutrients in the water in which they’re raised, generally leaving the water quality improved in areas where they are grown. Marine conservation groups consider them to be one of the most environmentally conscious seafoods available.

Nutritionally, they are a boon as well. First and foremost, they’re plentiful. Second, they are excellent sources of lean protein with little saturated fat, containing less than 1/5th the amount of that in even lean beef. They are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, B-12, and the micronutrient selenium. A serving also contains a decent helping of vitamin C, other B-complex vitamins, iron, manganese, and zinc.

So, it confounds me that given modern shipping that allows for even fragile seafoods to be offered at market across the country, that outside of a few pockets where they’re eagerly consumed a lot of people would never consider cooking them at home. So, I’m offering a few easy pointers to get you headed in the right direction.

Buying mussels:
Whether from a supermarket or fishmonger, you should be able to ask to see the catch tags that detail the fishery and the harvest date. Buy the freshest specimens you can – preferably no more than a few days since harvest. As they’re typically sold in mesh bags, you should be able to inspect them and ensure that they are mostly tightly closed, clean, have no fishy smell, with minimal to no breakage.

Storing mussels:
You can keep mussels for 2-3 days in the fridge after purchase. Leave them in the bag, and put them into a plastic container without a lid. Place a damp, clean cotton towel or thick layer of paper towels over top of them and put them in the refrigerator where they can be as close to 32°F as possible without freezing. Do not store them in water – they are salt-water creatures and tap water will kill them in a matter of hours. Dead shellfish are inedible.

Preparing mussels:
Remove from storage and their bag. Sort out and remove any with cracked or broken shells. Live mussels should be closed tight, though they may gape slightly the longer they’ve been out of water. Rinse them in a colander under cold running water. Test any that remain partially open by squeezing the shell shut – ones that refuse to stay closed are dead or nearly so, and should be discarded. If there’s any question, throw it away – bad shellfish aren’t worth the few discards it’ll cost. Farmed mussels should be ready to cook for the most part, right out of the sack. Wild-caught mussels (rather rare these days) will need to be scrubbed with a soft brush to remove grit and have the “beard”, a tough fibrous growth that attach the creatures to their beds, pulled off. This is easiest to do using a pair of needle-nose pliers by grasping the beard near the shell and pulling toward the hinge at the narrow end.

Cooking mussels:
Quickly and simply, for each pound of mussels, peel and thinly slice one shallot and saute gently in 1 tablespoon butter with a good pinch of salt, then add 1/2 cup of dry white table wine and bring to a boil. Add the mussels, lightly toss, cover, and steam for 6-8 minutes over medium-high heat until they open. Don’t over-cook. When they’re open, they’re done. Remove the mussels from the pot to a large bowl, discarding any that didn’t open, and add another tablespoon of butter to the remaining liquid and whisk in until melted. Pour the cooking liquid over the mussels and serve with some crusty bread. That’s it. Delicious and fast.

Optionally, fresh herbs such as tarragon or French thyme can be added to your own taste to the pot before the mussels. Some people add diced tomato or garlic as well.

To eat, just remove the meats from the shell with a fork (or use an empty shell as improvised “tongs”) and sop up the juices with the bread. Enjoy!

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