Jude's Culinary Journey

Muscling in on mussels

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 7/21/21

I was disappointed, even frustrated, when my sister, Janet, discovered an allergy to shrimp. At a Japanese hibachi meal in upstate New York, we had a delicious lunch, then headed for the parking lot, …

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Jude's Culinary Journey

Muscling in on mussels

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I was disappointed, even frustrated, when my sister, Janet, discovered an allergy to shrimp. At a Japanese hibachi meal in upstate New York, we had a delicious lunch, then headed for the parking lot, sated and happy. Before Janet could put the key in the ignition, she was having trouble breathing; her throat was constricted, and she had an itchy, red rash rising from her neck onto her face.

As I don’t know how to drive, my sister had to get herself, somewhat frantically, to the nearest emergency room. We sped toward the hospital, reviewing what we had just eaten, and the shrimp came to mind. Both of us were inclined to eat the crunchy tail as well as the body. The staff at the hospital couldn’t be sure if shellfish was the cause, but a shot of Benadryl was administered, and the symptoms slowly disappeared. 

We both adored shrimp and, selfishly, I didn’t want to stop cooking this versatile shellfish. “Try again,” I urged. Yes, you have read correctly. She obliged me on two separate occasions. On the first, we were having Chinese dim-sum with my dentist brother and nurse sister-in-law who had purposely brought along a syringe of Benadryl in case Janet had an adverse reaction. Tiny shrimp, as well as shrimp paste, are often found in dumplings and fritters the waitresses’ hawk as vegetarian. Janet was fine that time, but the next made it clear she could no longer eat shrimp. Lobster and crab are in the same family of crustaceans, as well, so that put an end to three favorites.

Interestingly, she has no problem with bivalve mollusks, so can enjoy oysters, clams, scallops and mussels. We are both crazy about raw, icy-cold, briny clams and oysters on the half-shell, particularly on a balmy summer day, but I’m loath to shuck my own. Opening them is an art and one must possess a patience I lack. I don’t want to lose a digit or cut my palm open for the sake of a satisfying meal.

Mussels, on the other hand, are a joy to prepare for many reasons. They are inexpensive and lend themselves to myriad preparations. They are sweet and rich in flavor, nutritious, sustainable and low in sodium and saturated fats. Ounce for ounce, mussel meat contains more protein than beef stock, much less fat, many more mineral nutrients and a quarter of the calories. They cook in mere minutes and a couple of pounds can be an appetizer for four or five people or a main dish for two or three. 

Grown abundantly in both Atlantic and Pacific waters, blue and black mussels are what you are most likely to see in your local market (those from Prince Edward Island are the blue variety). Vibrantly colored New Zealand green-lipped mussels have a slightly milder flavor but are harder to find. I buy my mussels at ShopRite in Monticello and usually try a different recipe each time I bring them home. 

I can’t figure out why they can be cooked in so many varied ways, with ingredients as dissimilar as coconut milk, Dijon mustard, chopped tomatoes, Chinese-preserved black beans and pungent oyster sauce, or in a creamy white-wine-based sauce with licorice-like fresh tarragon. In Belgium, there are restaurants entirely devoted to celebrating the sole preparation of these bivalves, and they are popular in Italian, French, Chinese and Spanish cultures, too.

There is only one way to eat a mussel. Mussels should be presented in large, wide, shallow bowls. In the bottom of the vessel will be a flavorful sauce that is a mingling of the cooking liquid and the juice released as the mussels open. When cooked, mussels will be half-opened and all you need do is pry the top shell open fully and twist it slightly to release it from the bottom. Discard the top shell in a big bowl in the middle of the table. Dip the mussel, still in its shell “container,” into some of the sauce and bring the shell to your mouth. Scrape the plumb mollusk into your mouth with your teeth. Chew. Swallow. Repeat. Use you fork for the side dishes.

Many recipes call for warm, crusty bread to be served alongside the mussels to sop up any residual sauce left in the bottom of the bowl after all the mussels have been eaten. We are not huge bread-eaters, and I rarely provide it with meals. I was much taken with a friend’s hands-on, proactive approach the other day when she was invited over for a lunch of Thai-style mussels in coconut milk. She lifted up the bowl in which floated bits of minced herbs and ginger and brought it to her lips. Then she drank until the bowl was clean. 

Ingredients needed to make Thai mussels in coconut milk.
Ingredients needed to make Thai mussels in coconut milk.

Thai mussels in coconut milk

Serves 2 – 3

2 pounds of mussels

Canned coconut milk, jarred Thai red curry paste and sweet chili sauce can all be found at your local supermarket.

If you like your food spicy, you can play around with the amount of Thai red curry paste. Add a little bit at a time and taste with a spoon. Half a teaspoon will basically not add heat at all—just a depth of flavor.

2 teaspoons coconut oil

1-2-inch piece of ginger, cut into matchsticks

1 garlic clove, finely grated or minced

1 15-ounce can coconut milk

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1/2 - 1 teaspoon Thai red curry paste

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon Thai sweet chili sauce

3 - 4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

3 - 4 tablespoon chopped fresh Thai basil (optional)

Heat the coconut oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce, red curry paste, honey and lime juice and bring the mixture to a boil. When the coconut milk is boiling, add the mussels. Cover the pot for a couple of minutes. Remove the lid, and with a slotted spoon, and take out any mussels that have opened. Continue to remove mussels as they open. If any mussels are still closed after 5 or 6 minutes, discard them. Pour the mussels back into the hot coconut milk and add the Thai basil and cilantro. Stir to combine and serve in shallow bowls along with the flavorful broth.  

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