Flex Your Mussels

7 Oct

When my husband and I first met, we lived in Boston and Manhattan, respectively.  So our first real “date” had to be one of those volatile weekend visits that destroy so many fledgling relationships.  He was coming to visit me.  I was racking my brain to think of the best places to take him and the most not-awkward things to do.  First date on steroids.

Of course we talked on the phone a lot, because we were not able to see each other in person.  One night a few days before that first weekend visit, I was listening with only one ear as he told me about his evening.  What I was really thinking about what if I shouldn’t take him to my favorite Belgian restaurant for dinner.  But did he like shellfish?  Polarizing.

Meanwhile, he was rattling on about his evening’s activities, and told me he had just gotten back from the gym.  Running along my own selfish thought train, I blurted out “Do you like mussels?”

There was an awkward pause.

“Ummm…what do you mean?”  Because, based on the actual conversation he had thought we were having about his trip to the gym, this is what he heard.

“Do you like muscles?”

This could have been one of those moments when so many relationships go horribly wrong and end before they are started.  Because, seriously, what kind of a creepy question was that?

As it turns out, I was able to explain myself.  He did, in fact, like mussels.  We ended up going to Cafe de Bruxelles for dinner, got ridiculously sauced, and had a stupendous time eating mussels and frites.

Sadly, this incredible Village spot was recently sold and will now be a French restaurant, for God’s sake.  Tragic, indeed.


I really never embraced seafood until moving to the east coast in 1996, but it turns out, of course, that tons of people like mussels and other shellfish (I’m a total lobster novice, so don’t hold your breath for a lobster boil entry anytime soon).  They seem really hard to make, right?  But it turns out they are not at all.  In fact, they are also cheap, sustainable, and can even fit into your diet if you watch the bread intake (what’s the bowl of mussels without a little bread for soaking up sauce?)  You really can’t lose.  I am going to share two favorite methods with you.

First, don’t be too intimidated by the idea of buying and cleaning mussels.  I can’t say this is true everywhere, but I find them at my local store in  2 1/2 lb. bags, basically clean, and costing less than $6.  The person behind the counter may drop them in a plastic bag, but don’t let it be tied shut!  Mussels are alive and must breathe. Pick them up late in your shopping trip and get them right home to rest on ice in a bowl in your fridge.  Use them the same day.  I find that the bag is perfect for two people as an entree or for four as an appetizer.

Beware of mussels harvested more than 2 weeks ago (we prefer a week or less) or with many visible open shells, cracked shells, or a “fishy” smell.  Pass on those.  Not good.  You can see the harvest date on the label attached to the bag.  If they’re in the window of the seafood counter, I guess you might want to ask.  But if you don’t want to go through them looking for the answer, just give those mussels a really good once-over and smell them when they come across the counter.  That should tell you what you need to know.  They should smell clean – like the sea.  NOT like fishy fish.

Keep 'em chilly!

Keep ’em chilly!

When all of your ingredients are out and you are ready to cook, take the mussels and examine them individually under cold running water.  They should be tightly closed.  If you find one that is not, give it a gentle squeeze and see if it slowly closes.  If it doesn’t close, toss it.  If a mussel still has a little ropey “beard” on on side, just tear it off.  You want those gone.

Dan demonstrates cleaning method...

Dan demonstrates cleaning method…

Voila!  You are ready to cook.

Our current favorite can be found in Lidia Bastianich’s cookbook (see source).  I really love Lidia’s cookbooks, by the way, because they provide recipes that include lots of variations and suggestions for mixing and matching.  I recommend her for even beginning Italian cooks.  Anyway – her mussels Trieste is delicious and simple to make.

Mussels Trieste-Style

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

1 or 2 onions cut into 1/4 inch slices (about 2 cups)

4 bay leaves

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp peperoncino flakes

1/2 cup white wine (we use vermouth often)

2 1/2 or 3 lbs. mussels (the bags are usually 2 1/2) cleaned

1/4 to 1/2 C breadcrumbs (or as needed)

3 Tb. chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preparing to weep...

Preparing to weep…

Splash a few tablespoons of olive oil into a big heavy-bottomed pot (you must have a lid available!) drop in the garlic and put over medium heat.  Let the garlic sizzle, but don’t let it burn!  When it is fragrant, stir in the onion, bay leaves, salt, and peperoncino.

Cook for a couple of minutes, tossing and stirring just until the onions wilt but still have some crunch.  Pour in the wine/vermouth and bring to a boil.  Immediately dump all the mussels into the pan, tumble them over quickly, cover tightly, and turn the heat up to high.  Steam the mussels for 2 minutes, frequently shaking the covered pan, then toss them over with a slotted spoon.  If most of the shells have already opened, leave the pan uncovered.  Otherwise, put the cover back on and steam a little longer.

When they are all open, sprinkle 1/4 cup breadcrumbs all over the pan.  Quickly tumble the mussels over and over, still on high heat, creating a sauce.  Add more breadcrumbs if the sauce is still thin after a minute of dribbling.

Drizzle 2 more tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with parsley.  Toss briefly.

Spoon mussels into big bowls and ladle the sauce over each portion.

Source:  Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali.  New York: Knopf, 2007

Garlic warning: Make your date eat these, too!

Like I said, this is our current go-to recipe.  But another favorite is one we worked out based on a mussels preparation from a book called Low Fat and Loving It by Ruth Spear, and a dish from Cafe de Bruxelles.  If you like mussels with a marinara sauce, this one could be for you!

Mussels Wish-We-Were-There

same size bag of mussels

olive oil

1 small chopped onion

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes

handful chopped parsley

3-4 dashes tabasco

1/2 C sliced green olives

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried oregano

2/3 cup vermouth or white wine

The gang's all here...

The gang’s all here…

Clean the mussels as before.  Heat the pan and splash some olive oil in it.  Throw in the onions and garlic and saute until soft and transparent – a few minutes.  Add the tomatoes, parsley, tabasco, salt, and oregano.  Cook 5 min.

Time to make the mussels!

Time to make the mussels!

Add the wine/vermouth, the olives, and the mussels and cover, cooking over high heat 8 to 10 min. or until the mussels open.

Ready to serve!

Ready to serve!

Spoon into bowls the same way as the first recipe and serve with crusty bread for dipping.

We often have mussels on a weeknight.  The person who puts Cormac to bed (he only takes a few minutes) comes downstairs and does the necessary chopping and measuring and then cleans the mussels.  By the time William is in bed 20 min. later, we’re ready to roll!  Within 15 minutes, we are sitting at the table having a great meal with a nice glass of white wine.

Mussels Trieste-Style

Mussels Trieste-Style

Definitely consider mussels for your next awkward first date (hey, he married me!) or even your next married-forever date – although perhaps you’ll want to skip the garlic…


46 Responses to “Flex Your Mussels”

  1. vickitoria October 7, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    How did you change the color of your blog?

  2. j_indie October 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Rich post! Made me hungry after dinner. I LOVE mussels, but I don’t cook them. I used to have them with frites in my fave restaurant.

    The fishy smell is definitively a red light. We love our fish in Spain and let me tell you: if anything, they should smell like seawater. No fish smells like fish if it’s fresh 🙂

    My British ex gf hated fish and she couldn’t help making a face when I ate them. Too bad, for me mussels and all things eaten with your hands are meant to be followed by whoopee.

  3. Razzle October 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    Mmmmmm I love mussels. My boy and I had them on one of our first restaurant dates too!
    My favorite has to be them in a Pernod sauce. Which means I need to find some Pernod, and then learn how to cook them on my own!

  4. CrystalSpins October 7, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    Great post…next time bigger pictures! Please? For me?


    • frazzledfoodie October 7, 2010 at 6:26 pm #

      Thanks Crystal! Actually, it’s funny you say that. I usually make them all “medium” but there were so many that I felt like I should shrink a few of the less exciting one. Your comment is duly noted! I hope you’ll come back…

  5. cristina October 7, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

    it looks like something i would make for my husband he loves muscles and maybe the sauce will block the fishy smell and i can eat it awsome blog thanks!!!!

  6. rsmacaalay October 7, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    I love seafood specially mussels, will definitely try this


  7. Sunflowerdiva October 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    I love seafood, but ever since my mom’s failed attempt at cooking mussels that made our guests sick, we’ve steered far away from mussels. But maybe someday I’ll pull out this recipe when we’re ready to try it again. ;D Great post. And yes, the pictures are so delicious looking I wish you could have made them larger! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  8. Pia October 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    I love seafood!Will definitely try the recipes! Great post!=)

  9. Elgart October 7, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    Delicious! That is actually my favorite..

  10. concar1 October 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    Yumm, I love mussels, but get scared of cooking live shellfish… are they still alive when you dump them into the pot? That might scare me off… But the recipes look delish!

    • frazzledfoodie October 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

      Yes – I’m afraid they are alive. In fact, you want to make sure you toss out any that are not (which is evidenced by a shell that is not tightly closed – see my post). I totally understand your reservations. I have a mind block that appears at lobster, probably because it moves. Mussels don’t. That’s probably how I get through it!

  11. Slamdunk October 7, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    Good tips. As an occasional eater of this type, it looks like I have lots to learn.

  12. Azhar_Writer October 8, 2010 at 12:48 am #

    Good Story.

    I also love seafood but my wife hate to even see it. I have only one choice, eat at a restaurant.


  13. theinsatiableblog October 8, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    Looks delicious!

  14. thecompletecookbook October 8, 2010 at 1:50 am #

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

    Both my husband and I are great lovers of seafood – we were both born and grew up at the coast so I guess it’s in our blood!

    You have a great blog and I have subscribed to receive your updates and look forward to seeing your next post.

    I invite you to have a look around my blog at http://www.thecompletecookbook.com – maybe you would also like to subscribe to receive my updates.

    Looking forward to sharing.

    🙂 Mandy

  15. louisvuittonbao October 8, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    Looks delicious!

  16. Vibeke October 8, 2010 at 5:12 am #

    Mmmmmh…mussels! I have a sweet, little mussle story to share with you, still fresh in my mind after my friend phoned me yesterday. She is the mother of 7 (!) children, and has consequently spent the best part of the last fifteen years as a housewife. It sounds boring, but of course it’s one of the most action packed jobs there is. Not to mention the words multitalented supermom… Anyway, she has recently started work (full time), leaving her husband to sort out her previous housewife chores. The result? Well, her phone call yesterday was to explain that my son is very welcome to come over for his regular play dates with her son as long as he’s open minded as to what’s on the menu. The day before her husband’s idea of cooking lunch involved opening seven tins of mussels and microwaving popcorn! I am still laughing!

    • frazzledfoodie October 10, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

      Wow. Tins of mussels. Somehow that sounds like some whole other kind of food. I’m thinking I prefer my mussels in the shell! Good story, though! Thanks for sharing.

  17. munira's bubble October 8, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    your post made me wish i wasn’t allergic to shellfish 😦

  18. health,health,health October 8, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    I think the wife’s husband, he will be very touching. Why? Because his wife care for him, but also do a lot of good food

  19. psk0504 October 8, 2010 at 7:08 am #

    hahaha. It was a good story. and very funny.~
    I got another story related the mussels. haha

  20. icashpack October 8, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    I mark this good

  21. thenewcomer October 8, 2010 at 9:11 am #

    This looks good! I just posted one of my fave seafood recipes, Iranian-style:



  22. sarahnsh October 8, 2010 at 9:19 am #

    My bf likes muscles, I do not, so I’ve tried them a few times when he’s gotten them, just to see if I can sway myself, but I can’t do it. I just am not a seafood person, and I can’t get over how they look out of the shell. He just loves it though.

  23. rubiescorner October 8, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    This looks wonderful. I loved the first recipe. This would be a new one to try. Thanks, and I love your post.

  24. globalgirlbkk October 8, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    This just made me so hungry.

  25. sayitinasong October 9, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I have never ever had the nerve to try and cook mussles myself. Your instructions make it look quite easy… after reading your post I might just attempt… I will let you how I get on…. :o)… cute story about your first date…

  26. thesnackingstudent October 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    Yum, this just made me so hungry! 🙂 Now that I think of it, I haven’t had a mussel date with my boyfriend yet… I think that will have to happen when I’m home from school! 🙂 Thanks for the fun blog post!

  27. La SuSea October 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    Mmmm i love eating mussels and cooking them but i’ve never tried them in a red sauce.
    I like your post, thanks for sharing.

  28. uforicfood October 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed!!
    These recipes sound fantastic – can’t wait to give them both a try!
    Seeing as you love mussells, this is another recipe you might also like:

    Well done on a great blog!

  29. sammyg518 October 13, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    Love it! This reminds me of growing up in Connecticut, we would take trips to Boston and Cape Cod and this recipe truly capture those moments! Thanks for the post!

  30. Linda Lewis October 15, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    I love, love, love mussels and we are so lucky to have them fresh here on the coast of Maine. Tonight they are on the menu, and I will try your Wish We Were Here recipe with its slightly different twist. I have made a point of collecting mussel recipes and try them all. So far, I haven’t found one not to like!

    • frazzledfoodie October 15, 2010 at 9:24 am #

      Linda – Dan and I are huge fans of Maine and are hoping to live there one day. I hope my recipe passes muster!

  31. driftwooddiaries October 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    Hi loved this blog. We live on the west coast of scotland and we have a ready supply of mussels from the loch fyne will try out your recipe suggestions.

    • frazzledfoodie October 15, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

      Scotland is our absolute favorite vacation destination! We spent our honeymoon there and even considered relocating for awhile — sadly, that didn’t work out. It’s a thrill to hear you are trying my recipe in one of our favorite countries!

  32. barrycyrus October 17, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    now im hungry :p

  33. Ixy October 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm #

    That first date story made me laugh out loud! I don’t think I’d like mussels, but you do make them sound tempting.

  34. Lady Googoogaga October 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    Looks Delish, we love Lydia!!

  35. May October 16, 2011 at 12:12 am #

    The gym and mussels vs muscles! That was so funny. And yum. Wish I was a better cook!

  36. Kelli @ No. 7 October 17, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    yum! Is it weird that it’s only 7:50 a.m. and now I’m already dreaming about dinner tonight? We had mussels this weekend and holy cow, were they delicious. The best part about Maine is being able to harvest your own. Well…not so much now because it’s too cold for my wimpy bones to go out there in muck around. Grocery store, here I come!

  37. Katie October 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    They look absolutely delicious. And you’re right, cooking them seems more intimidating than anything to me. But you make it almost sound doable. I may just have to try it someday.

    Oh, and awesome first date story.


  1. Flex your mussels | Paneful's Greasy Spoon - October 7, 2010

    […] Mussels […]

  2. Stupendous Seafood Pasta « The Frazzled Foodie - August 27, 2011

    […]  For easy info on any cleaning you need to to for mussels or how to choose them, check out my post Flex Your Mussels.  You want all of your seafood standing by.  Once you get going with this recipe, it happens very […]

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