Steaming Your Own Mussel Feast: A Guide For The Squeamish

Steamed mussels are the perfect meal to prepare if you want to feel like you’re feasting like royalty on a dime.

While bowls of mussels cost anywhere from $12.99-$25 at restaurants, they literally cost less than $5 a pound at the nicest seafood shops around the Midwest. Making your own mussels also means that you can ensure that they’re stored properly and cleaned well.

Before I even tried my first mussel, I remember reading about them in Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential. He writes:

I don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But, in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them.

I purchase seafood the same day I cook it and prefer to visit seafood-only stores like Coastal Seafood in the Twin Cities or Bob’s Seafood in St. Louis. It puts my mind at ease. You know that the fish mongers are experts because seafood’s all they sell! Plus, you might be surprised to find the prices are better, too.

If you examine older recipes for steamed mussels, they might instruct you to soak your mussels in a solution of water and flour to encourage them to purge any grit. Everything I’ve read recently says today’s farmed mussels are mostly grit-free. The Prince Edward Island mussels I bought at Bob’s Seafood were cleaned and de-bearded. This makes the cooking process even more simple.

The fishmonger at Bob’s instructed me to remove the bag of ice from my package of mussels when I got home and store them in the fridge for the few hours before dinner. They do release some liquid, so I recommend storing them in a contraption that allows the liquid to drain away from the seafood. I rigged old take-out containers by poking holes in the lids and placing them upside down inside the container. Then, I placed the mussels on top of the lids and stored them in the fridge for a few hours. Most articles recommend also covering the mussels with a damp cloth or paper towel.

When you are ready to clean your mussels for cooking, your goal is to essentially to remove any debris clinging to the shells and toss any damaged or dead mussels. Details follow in the recipe below. Don’t be surprised if you hear little suction noises as they open and close. I’m squeamish and found this alarming. My advice is to simply press forward. You can do this! You’re so close to a big pot of delicious mussels. 

We’ve ordered mussels everywhere. Our favorite version of all time is served at Meritage in St. Paul, MN. The shellfish are served in the most savory, winey sauce flavored with tomatoes, garlic and pancetta with plenty of charred bread. No one’s got them beat in terms of broth. We’re too far away from Meritage to visit for an occasional fix of moules frites so here’s my best impression:

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Cooks’s Notes: Adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe for Mussels in White Wine. Inspired by the moules frites at Meritage in St. Paul, MN. If you want a chunkier sauce, use diced tomatoes or squeeze whole ones. I used a cheap bottle of pinot grigio and all was well. You could always use a nicer one. Just don’t use something sweet like a moscato or reisling. Ina Garten uses shallots. I thought diced onion tasted just fine. Fresh herbs are always ideal and dry work fine in a pinch, too. 

Ingredients:
3 lb. mussels (Serves two people very generously or three with no leftovers).
Thick cut bacon, about five strips
Butter, four tablespoons
Olive oil, about two tablespoons
1/2 onion, small dice
5 cloves garlic, minced
White wine (I used a $5.99 bottle of Beringer Pinot Grigio)
2/3 cup tomato sauce
Black Pepper
Salt
(Optional) Red pepper flakes
Honey
Thyme
Basil

1. Rinse & inspect mussels. Gently brush them with a cloth or brush under cold running water to eliminate any grit. De-beard if necessary. Discard mussels that are damaged or open. Mussels will open and close slightly. Check an open mussel by tapping on the outside or squeezing it closed. If it remains open, toss. If a mussel that was closed when you were washing it opens a little bit, it’s alive. Don’t be alarmed if you hear little suction noises as they open and close. If you’re squeamish like me, this is kind of freaky. Do your best to forge ahead.

2. In a large stock pot, cook chopped bacon with a little bit of olive oil. When it’s crispy, remove and set aside. Remove bacon grease from the pan leaving the residue for flavor. This can be saved for cooking later. If there’s a lot of debris, strain through cheesecloth.

3. Return stock pot to burner. Saute onions in about two tablespoons of butter and a drizzle of olive oil until softened. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, herbs (if using dried basil and thyme, start with a good pinch of each), black pepper, and a good pinch of salt. Stir until fragrant.

4. De-glaze the pan with one cup of white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to incorporate the brown bits into the sauce. Simmer for a few minutes until slightly reduced.

5. Add the tomato sauce, a good splash of water or low-sodium stock and stir. You want plenty of flavorful broth because dipping bread into the mussel sauce is the most fun part of eating mussels! Simmer until the sauce tastes mellow and doesn’t have an alcohol bite. This will take a few minutes. Add another dab of butter, touch of honey (or sugar) and salt and pepper as needed.

6. Turn up the heat a little bit so that the sauce is boiling and add the mussels. Give them a quick stir and cover. Reduce heat back to medium-low. Steam until the mussels open, shaking the pot every so often so that the mussels on the bottom don’t burn. This should take between 5-8 minutes. Some of the mussels just won’t open, so don’t wait until every single one opens. Turn off the heat and remove the pan when most of the mussels are open. Toss the mussels that won’t open. If they’re cracked open pretty well, we still eat them.

7. Serve immediately with plenty of crusty bread for dipping. If you need to wait a little bit before serving the mussels, place them somewhere off the burner with the lid removed. They’ll be OK for a little bit. Overcooked mussels develop a firm, mealy texture. You want them to remain silky and delicate.

6 Comments

  1. Press on! You can do it!!! I love it. I have never tried to cook muscles but you may have convinced me.

  2. I’ve cooked them several times, and it really is easy and tasty (and as you note, inexpensive). It feels like a treat without the investment that, say, lobster involves.

    • My thoughts exactly:) Jake had wanted me to try preparing crab legs. I explained how crab legs are $20 a lb and mussels are $4.50. Like you said, a treat without the investment that’s about as satisfying.

  3. You go, sis! I’m allergic to them so I’ll just cheer you on from Iowa 🙂

  4. Hey yo! Finally got to your October newsletter in November and found this gem waiting for me! The best moules y frites I’ve had were in San Diego… Never made them myself though. Might have to after reading this lil beauty. Good advice sticking with a fish monger…

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