I had been craving mussels all week and I finally picked some up on my way home last night. I hadn’t given much thought to how I would prepare them, but I knew I had bacon, butter, beer, and some vegetables hanging around in the crisper. I think many people assume that steamed mussels are complicated, but in reality they couldn’t be more straightforward. They are also quite inexpensive in most places, which may also come as a surprise ($4.99 a pound at Whole Foods).
The basic formula is this: simply crisp up a little bacon, saute some finely chopped vegetables in the rendered fat, add the mussels along with a little liquid for steam (beer and wine are highly recommended), and cover for a few minutes to cook the mussels. Finally, fortify with a little butter and toss in some herbs. That’s it! Try this method out once or twice to get comfortable and next thing you know you’ll be eating steamed mussels (or clams! Don’t forget clams!) every week.
The most important thing to know is that mussels are alive when you purchase them (or they should be), so they must be treated with care. Buy your mussels no sooner than one day in advance of your cooking plans. Typically, mussels are sold in a netted bag or in bulk, and then put into a plastic bag. The plastic bag needs to remain open, or the mussels may suffocate. I always ask for a bag if crushed ice to be placed in with the mussels to keep them cold, but make sure it is a separate bag or the ice could melt and spoil your delicate shellfish. This is a perfectly reasonable request at the fish counter, so don’t be shy.
Beer Steamed Mussels with Bacon and Fennel for two:
2 slices thick cut bacon
half of a small onion, small dice (about 1/2 a cup of onion)
half of a small fennel bulb, small dice (again, about 1/2 a cup)
1 stalk celery, small dice
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded*
1/4 C. beer or wine (I recommend a lager or a dry white wine)
2 tbsp. butter, cut into bits
A handful of chopped Italian parsley
*To clean the mussels, run them under cold water one at a time. If you run across a mussel that is open, squeeze it gently closed a few times and then wait a few seconds to see if it closes up on its own. If it does, that’s a sign it’s still alive (and safe to eat). If it doesn’t respond to your prodding, it’s dead. Throw it away.
As you rinse, be on the lookout for what look like a few little wiley hairs poking out of one spot. This is the beard, which is what attaches the mussel to whatever surface it lived on. Grab the beard with your thumb and index finger and pull it off. It takes a little practice, but you’ll get it down. Not all of the mussels will have a beard, f.y.i.
Set the cleaned, debearded, living mussels aside in a bowl.
Place the bacon slices into a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium heat. Cook until just lightly crispy on both sides and then remove from the pot, leaving the fat behind. Add the vegetables and garlic to the pan and season with salt. Saute until the vegetables are softened, about two minutes.
Add the mussels to the pot and stir to coat them with the vegetables and fat. Pour over the beer or wine, increase the heat to medium-high, and cover the pot for 3 minutes. In the meantime, chop the bacon. After 3 minutes, check to see if the mussels have opened. If only some have opened or they are just barely opening, cover the pot for another minute and check again.
Once the mussels have opened, uncover the pot and turn off the heat. Scatter the butter bits, the chopped bacon, and the parsley all around the pan. Stir the mussels gently for 3 or 4 turns to just mix everything together. Serve the mussels right out of the pot or transfer to a large bowl, pouring all of the broth over the top. Have a bowl ready on the side for discarded shells.
I love to eat the mussels by pulling away the empty half of the shell and then scooping some of the broth and vegetables into the half with the mussel in it. Potentially uncouth, but incredibly satisfying.