That Beautiful Bivalve
Treasured as part of many cuisines, the slightly sweet taste and versatility of the mussel have been wowing palates for thousands of years.
Spaniards do it with sherry and the French with white wine. Belgians do it with beer and New Zealanders with vinaigrette. Thais do it with coconut milk and Chinese with fermented black beans. Different means, yes, but all to one delectable end: a bowl of toothsome steamed mussels.
Mussels are coveted throughout cultures, across continents—and have been for millennia. Archeological evidence suggests they were suppertime favorites for everyone from Native Americans to the Fu Chinese to the Samarrans of ancient Baghdad. Back then, the mollusks came in hundreds of textures and hues and were the marine equivalent of kudzu, colonizing every available waterway. As with so many species, myriad environmental forces have seen them drastically diminish. Today, the freshwater mussel is used mainly to cultivate pearls. It’s the saltwater species that cultivates appetites.
In this country, our appetite is sated by four of those in particular. The blue mussel is the most common, the one that glistens darkly in your parsley-flecked moules frites and bobs in your red-sauce posillipo. More than 17,000 tons of them are harvested year-round from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, the leading producer, and New England. Washington State cultivates the meatier Mediterraneanand sweeter Penn Cove species, and each year, New Zealand sends over about 9,000 tons of its large greenshell variety. But our mussel mania pales in comparison to that of those gluttonous Europeans.
They grow more than 300,000 tons a year.
That’s a lot of mollusks. And as with so much of what we covet, demand long ago outpaced supply. Today, most mussels are farm-grown on ropes or posts suspended from rafts in tidal areas. Some mussels are cultivated in sea-bottom beds and a small percentage is dredged wild, but ropes have the industry tied up: mussels grown on them are grit-free with a higher meat-to-shell ratio.
That meat, of course, is the point. Ivory white or often pretty-in-pink (those flirty pubescent females), it can be marketed lightly steamed then frozen in the shell, as are the majority of greenshells, or occasionally smoked. But blues and West Coast types are mostly available live, clamped tight and happy so long as they’re kept dry at a comfy 38-or-so degrees (discard any with open shells—they’re dead and can be toxic; see accompanying storage and handling tips). Treat them well and they’ll reward you with nutrition that rivals their flavor. With one-third more protein than oysters, they’re rich in omega fatty acids and have little fat or “bad” LDL cholesterol. Eat them with abandon and assurance: like clams, mussels are federally monitored for toxins.
In Westchester, it’s easy to eat them with abandon. Throughout the county, mussels cascade from restaurant steamers and sauté pans on tides of sherry, Chablis, and beer, thatches of herbs clinging like errant seaweed. They hail from many ports sporting badges of ethnicity: cumin from Morocco, salsa verde from Spain, chorizo from Portugal, cannellini from Italy, lime from Peru. Tradition is a commandment at Aquario in West Harrison (141 E Lake St 914-287-0220; aquariony.com), where mussels pair with the classic Spanish/Portuguese sofrito sauté of olive oil, tomato, pepper, and onion. Port Chester’s Pollo a la Brasa Misti (100 N Main St 914-939-9437) spikes its sofrito with a Peruvian hit of lime, and Mount Kisco’s La Camelia (234 N Bedford Rd 914-666-2466) goes the more austere Galician route, eschewing the peppers and onions. And then there’s Mamaroneck’s Zitoune (1127 W Boston Post Rd 914-835-8350; zitounerestaurant.com), where Morocco’s classic spice blend, chermoula, anchors chef Jose Ureña’s moules à la marocaine, a swoon of sweet paprika and cumin.
But tradition is a muse at Yonkers’s X2O Xaviars on the Hudson (71 Water Grant St 914-965-1111; xaviars.com), where Peter Kelly’s gorgeous lime-zest-flecked Latino riff jazzes a butter and lime bass line with sherry and Portuguese chorizo. That chorizo, Kelly explains, “is less spicy than other types, so it’s not overpowering. And the sweet caramel sherry notes balance the lime’s acidity and chorizo’s spice.”
At Dobbs Ferry’s new Half Moon (1 High St 914-693-4130), Sal Sprufero trades sherry wine for sherry vinegar, tossing it with olive oil and herbs over water-steamed mussels in his mussels vinaigrette. “I want it pure and simple, without wine to complicate the flavors,” he states, and to paraphrase a sage, in the simple lies the divine: the mussels shine so sweet and creamy against the vinegar, I would swear some covert butter lurked. (It didn’t.)
At Antipasti (One N Broadway White Plains 914-949-3500; antipastiny.com), Rick Laakkonen’s mussels in brodetto isn’t simple, but it certainly is divine. “A combination of the rustic and refined,” is the Ducasse protégé’s description of his slow-roasted tomato-and-garlic stoked broth, earthy with legumes and farro grain, scented with lemon and laced with vermouth.
The muse looks eastward at Irvington’s One (1 Bridge St 914-591-2233; restaurantoneny.com), where the Angkor Wat of mussel dishes is constructed with coconut milk, lime, lemongrass, red chili, green apple, and curry. What awe: the mussels steam in the fragrant broth, then bathe in it on the plate, every last cilantro-cloaked drop soaked up by a grilled slice of baguette. (And forget the parsley garnish on One’s moules frites—smoked paprika and aoli are so much more au courant.) At Croton’s Ocean House (49 N Riverside Ave 914-271-0702), Brian Galvin’s more minimalist Thai riff rocks with green curry paste, and he makes the dish whether he wants to or not. “I took it off the menu once,” he confides, “and people screamed.”
And then there’s the kitchen cowboy, who runs tradition right out of town. At the newly revamped Sterling Inn Café in New Rochelle (1279 North Ave 914-636-2400; thesterlinginnrestaurant.com), rebel Sterling Smith jolts tomato and scallions with chorizo, then tosses in mussels and preserved lemon dice to steam in a cascade of Copper Hook Spring Ale. “Everybody uses white wine,” he grins, “I like to get out of the box a little.” And I’m happy to join him there, spooning up the amber broth’s singular depth and bite. “Copper Hook has a sharp, ripe flavor that holds up after cooking,” he explains. “Other beers get bland after the alcohol cooks off.” With lemon perfume and chorizo spice buttressing the mussels’ brine, there’s nothing bland here.
As all roads once led to Rome, most restaurant mussels lead to Canada. Of all the restaurateurs I spoke with, only Aquario’s Manuel Cabral uses New Zealand greenshells. And that’s a shame—not for our palates, since the taste is similar (they’re a bit sweeter), but for our eyes. Those massive shells glow mottled green and black, woven through with amber striations. In Cabral’s mussels with red sauce, they sprawl in their carnelian bath like bivalve odalisques, all Titian heft with Pollack splotch. Red sauce trades for yellow in his other Portuguese specialty, garlicky mustard-tinged bulhao pato.
Eat and ogle them all you can, since our other chefs prefer the more local, petite, and indisputably more plain-Jane Prince Edward Island blues (ever the maverick, Sterling Smith’s blues come from Maine). “Consistent” is the mantra here, the chefs’ unanimous descriptor for size, convenience, and flavor. Some chefs call that flavor sweet, others briny, but every one I questioned noted its import in stocks, stews, and sauces. P.E.I. mussel jus has a popular partner in saffron, the traditional spice in bouillabaisse: the duo is featured in Peter Kelly’s mussel soup, Rafael Palomino’s roasted-garlic-infused broth for steamed mussels at Pacifico (316 Boston Post Rd, Port Chester 914-937-1610; pacificony.com), Sal Sprufero’s sauce for roasted cod, and Rick Laakkonen’s garlic- and herb-suffused ragout of grilled octopus, Manilla clams, pastini, and cannellini
But mussels deserve the spotlight regardless of provenance. “Mussels are so versatile, and go with an array of foods,” says Kelly. “They take equally well to cream, butter, and acids like vinegars and wine.”
But for all the perfunctory modifiers, all the “versatiles,” “flavorfuls,” and “complementaries,” perhaps Manuel Cabral gives loftiest expression to mussels’ timeless appeal. “When I open the box and breathe in their smell,” he says, “it takes me back to another time, when oceans and rivers ran clean. It’s a beautiful sense.” Yes, señor, it is.
Diane Weintraub Pohl writes the What’s In Season and Food Trends columns for Westchester Magazine.
To Clean ‘n Steam:
Purchased mussels must be alive, shells tightly closed. Discard any that are not.
Refrigerate in open container that allows for drainage, away from melted ice or water, until ready to use (up to two days).
Just before cooking: scrub with stiff brush, tug off beard if attached. Rinse under cold water.
Check that shells are tightly closed.
To Steam: cook mussels in covered pot with water/wine/beer for about five minutes or until mussels open wide. Or steam in microwave on HIGH. Discard any that do not open.