Mussels are the perfect dish for entertaining. They’re affordable, easy to prepare, look impressive, and can be done up a whole variety of ways… French, Thai, Jamaican, you name it.
I often include mussels on the menus I create for the Ted and Amy Supper Club as a first or second course. Where I live, I get them for about $1.99 per pound and plan for about ¾ pound per person for a starter course. Generally, I buy them the morning of my event for freshness, but you can purchase them the day before if needed.
How to Care for Mussels
When buying mussels at the store, they often come packed in a netted bag, then in a brown paper bag, and then a plastic bag. Since mussels are technically still alive until you cook them, you want to let them breathe and keep them cool. As soon as you get home, take them out of their bags (or at least the plastic and paper bags) and store them in a bowl in the fridge until you’re ready to clean and cook them.
Recipes call for cleaning and debearding the mussels before cooking. Most fish markets do this for you, but you can give them a second rinse and pull off any remaining “beards” or threads from the shells. Be sure to sort through the mussels and toss any with chipped or cracked shells, too. Cracked shells are a sign of a dead mussel — somethng you don’t want to be eating or serving.
Adding Flavor to Your Mussels
Steaming mussels is a very easy preparation method and allows you to add flavor and pizzazz to the dish. Generally, all steamed mussel dishes begin with onions or shallots sautéed in butter or oil. To this, add a steaming liquid (i.e. wine, coconut milk) and the mussels are then added. Once the mussels are cooked (see below), they can be served in bowls with some steaming liquid and a garnish of fresh herbs (i.e. thyme, cilantro, parsley) or other vegetables, along with some bread or fries for dunking. My favorite way to cook mussels is with some chorizo or linguça and chopped tomatoes for a Portuguese-inspired dish. Add some bread and wine, and you have a complete meal in no time.
Preparing Mussels for a Party
When entertaining, prep all the ingredients (or mise en place, as chefs say) before guests arrive. When you’re ready to serve, all you need to do is combine the ingredients, cover, and steam for 4-5 minutes. You’ll know your mussels are cooked when the shells are all popped open wide. If some mussels don’t open, it could be because they have not cooked for long enough or because the mussels died before steaming. If you’re not sure if they’re undercooked or dead, put the lid back on and steam a little longer. If the shells still don’t open after another minute, assume they’re bad and toss them. (Photo courtesy of Kara Masi)