Make the Most of Mussels

Credit: Photograph by Nicole Franzen

For all their romantic bistro charm, mussels are really very simple to cook: Heat a pot, sauté some garlic and/or shallots, pour in beer or wine, add the mussels, and dig in once they open. But don't stop there. The deep tidal taste of mussels goes great with almost anything. Take inspiration from New England clam chowder and start with sautéed onions and bacon, steam the mussels in fish stock, and finish with a little cream. Or try a Southeast Asian approach: Start with garlic, chilies, and chopped lemongrass, steam the mussels in coconut milk, and finish with basil and lime. Or this version below, which is inspired by Mexican cuisine and is one of my favorites.

Don't worry about scrubbing or desanding them: These days, nearly all mussels are cultivated above the sea floor and come to the market pretty much ready to eat. Just give them a quick rinse in a colander, pull off any of the stringy “beards" sticking out of the shells, and toss any that are already open and won't close when you tap them. You're ready to go.

Chorizo-Steamed Mussels (Serves 2 to 4)

  • ½ lb Mexican chorizo
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 12 oz beer, preferably lager
  • 2 lb mussels
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced (optional)
  • lime wedges, for serving

Remove chorizo from its casing. In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. When it starts to smoke, add chorizo and sear undisturbed until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Stir in ¾ of the onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add beer and bring to a boil over high heat. Add mussels, cover, and cook, shaking the pan every minute or so, until mussels open, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat, and add cilantro, jalapeño (if desired), and remaining onion. Squeeze lime in to taste and serve with lime wedges.

Or try these...

1. Use fresh Italian fennel sausage instead of chorizo; white wine instead of beer; 3 tbsp of chopped parsley and 1 tsp of grated lemon zest instead of the cilantro/onion/jalapeño combo. Stir 1 to 2 tbsp of butter into the hot broth at the end.

2. Cut 1 lb of pork shoulder into 1½-inch cubes, pat dry, salt, and brown deeply on one side; add 4 cloves of chopped garlic with onion and 2 tsp paprika; use white wine instead of beer, and finish with 2 tbsp chopped cilantro and a splash of good olive oil.

3. All these recipes will also work with clams, with one caveat: Clams can be very sandy. If you can't find clean ones at the fish market, soak the clams in 1 gallon cold water with ½ cup salt for 30 minutes and scrub the shells under running water before cooking.