Being the Jersey girl and foodie that I am, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about mussels before researching this article. Given how many restaurants have mussels on their menus (including every pizzeria in north Jersey) and the fact that New Jersey is one of the leading suppliers of clams to the world as well as being the number two supplier of scallops, I mistakenly assumed that mussels come from here too. The truth is, although they are present in our waters, they are not an important part of our commercial fishing business.
Worldwide there are nearly 1,000 different varieties of freshwater and marine mussels of which only seventeen are edible. China is the largest producer, but they consume domestically almost all of what they generate. Chile is the largest exporter, but the blue mussels we know and love generally come from Canada and Maine. Considered by many to be the mussel mecca of the world, Prince Edward Island (PEI) alone is responsible for 80% of Canada’s cultured mussel production and 65% of its value, much of which is exported to the US. Not only are they prolific, but highly sought after by many notable chefs.
Mussels are bivalves like clams, oysters and scallops but are found in both fresh and saltwater. Marine mussels have a delightful, slightly sweet, slightly briny yet delicate flavor while freshwater mussels have been described as tasting like a dirty old shoe! What is so interesting about them—other than how delicious marine mussels are—is how important they are to our marine ecosystem. Mussels are super-filters for the water in which they live. They feed by passing water through two valves – up to 15 gallons per day per mussel – removing plankton and other organic material in the process. But they also remove bacteria and other unwanted substances thus improving water quality and clarity.
Unlike freshwater mussels that have a powerful foot they use to move about, marine mussels are stationary once they reach maturity. They produce a liquid that sets in seawater and turns into incredibly strong byssal threads that they use to attach themselves to substrate like rocks. These threads, which we refer to as beards, can stretch up to 160% of their initial length and still be five times the strength of a human Achilles tendon, according to Salish magazine. They are so strong they can even cling to a Teflon pan.
Scientists are keenly interested in this material and are in the process of developing a mussel-based adhesive for use in eye surgery and wound care. They have also figured out how these threads are structured and are using this model in the development of artificial tendons.
Not only are mussels important to the health of our seawater, but they can also be useful to our health as well. Cultivated for almost 800 years in Europe, mussels have been a human food source for more than 20,000 years and for good reason, according to oceanconservancy.org.
A three-ounce portion has about the same amount of protein as an equal amount of beef, twice as much iron, 75% less fat and one third fewer calories. These little nuggets of nutrition are low in cholesterol, have no carbohydrates and are an excellent source of Vitamins A, B12, and C, as well as omega-3 fatty and amino acids, zinc, iodine, selenium, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium.
Together, these nutrients can help improve brain function, reduce inflammatory conditions, regulate thyroid hormones, contribute to your overall immune system, and help you to have healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Wild mussels are often found at the bottom of the water and tend to be full of sand and dirt, and therefore a chore to clean. Farm-raised mussels are generally grown on long ropes suspended in the water and are therefore significantly cleaner and just as flavorful. Speaking of flavor, ever wonder why some mussel meat is white and some is orange? The orange ones are female, the white ones are male; they taste exactly the same.
Although they are available year-round, mussels are at their best just before spawning, which has historically occurred in the spring and summer when they are fleshy and plump. Hence the beginning of the mussel myth #1: Only eat mussels in months that have an “r” in their name. This is not because it is unsafe to eat them from May through August. The myth comes from the fact that after spawning the mussel is weaker and smaller and therefore has a reduced shelf life. Recently, due to global warming and climate change, spawning is harder to accurately predict. Cooler summers and a warm September can cause them to spawn in early autumn. The biggest risk during the summer months comes from toxic algae blooms commonly referred to as red tide. Just be sure to purchase them from a reputable purveyor, as they constantly monitor water conditions, and you will have no worries.
Mussels must be alive when you cook them. So, when you buy them be sure their shells are tightly closed. If one is open, tap it lightly or gently press the shell shut. If it closes and stays shut, the mussel is alive and safe to eat. Use them within 48 hours of purchase. Like all fish, the fresher, the better. Rinse, scrub, and remove the beards (if any of them still have them) but don’t clean or prepare them until you are ready to use them. Most importantly: never purchase a mussel with any kind of unpleasant odor. Mussels should smell faintly like the sea, not dead fish. Let your nose be your guide. And don’t soak them in fresh water—it will kill them.
Mussel myth #2: If the shells don’t open after cooking, the mussel is dead and should be discarded. Try cooking the unopened ones for another minute or so. If they still don’t open, pry open the shell with a knife. However, if you detect even the slightest foul odor, throw it away!
Usually about two to four inches in length, some have been found to be up to eight inches long. In my opinion and to quote Tony Randall, “Tiny is tastier.” Unlike clams that are generally sold by the dozen, mussels are sold by the pound and are very economical, ranging in price from two to six dollars per pound—and you only need one to one and a half pounds per person for a main-course serving.
Fresh mussels are available at your local supermarket or the Lobster House Fish Market and Central Park Farm.
In Cape May
There are many fabulous places where you can enjoy mussels in Cape May, each with their own unique and delicious take on this guilt-free superfood.
Classic marinara: C-View, Elaine’s (with blue cheese sprinkle), Harbor View, Harry’s (fra diavolo), Iccara, Lobster House, Lucky Bones (with gorgonzola cheese), Panico’s, Red Brick, Sapore, Secondo (fra diavolo), Two Mile Landing, and Viggiano’s
White wine, garlic and herbs: C-View, Fin’s (with tomato and leeks), Harbor View (with tomato), Iccara, Lobster House, Mayer’s Tavern (with tomato), Red Brick, Rusty Nail, Sapore Italiano, and Two Mile Landing
Thai mussels: Cricket Club (lemongrass and coconut milk), Harry’s, and Tisha’s
With Beer/Champagne: Blue Pig (Ale, onion, tomato and garlic), Harry’s, Mayer’s Tavern (Cape May Brew), and The Lookout (heirloom tomatoes, capers, fennel, pecorino, Dijon cream and Prosecco)
The most extraordinary, creative, and absolutely French preparation can be found at Maison Bleue Bistro, where they are presented with tarragon cream and accompanied by a poached egg.
Personal Favorite at Home
Being the Francophile I am, my favorite way to enjoy these marvelous mollusks is a dish called Moules en Marinières or Sailor-style mussels. Although meant to be an entrée, I like to serve this simple, elegant, and impressive dish as an hors d’oeuvres.
Start by sautéing three chopped shallots in two tablespoons of butter. Add ¾ cup white wine and the mussels. Cover and steam for five minutes just until the mussels open. Remove the mussels from the pan; remove the empty top shells and discard. Place the bottom shells (with the mussels) neatly on a serving dish. Add 2/3 cup heavy cream, salt, pepper, and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice to the pan. Reduce slightly and finish with some chopped fresh parsley. Carefully pour the sauce over the mussels and voila! Bon appetit.