|CAVEMAN #2: Hang bop.
I'm not going to eat it,
|CM1: Hang bop nobby.||
CM2: Hah! Hang bop. Nat flap ba Mikog.
I know, let's give it to Mikog.
CM2: Polly wog gooey. Flay Mikog.
He likes it! Hey Mikog!
CM1, 2 & 3: Hugh, hugh, hugh!
CM2: Ow, don't hit me.
GUESTS: Young AB
Several millennium later a Nazi plagued America turns to the protein laden bi-value for relief from meat rationing. Still, there are skeptics.
YOUNG AB: War is hell.
PARENT: Watch your mouth, Mr. [slaps coon skin hat off]
To this day, a great majority of modern Americans would
rather take a quick kick to the coon skin cap [cap is slapped off] than munch a
mound of mussels. Which is a real shame because even our fossilized friend
Mikog knew that, uh, beside from a Maui beach hut nothing quite captures the magnificence
of the ocean quite like a fresh plate of mussels.
So join us as we hunt for, care for and convert of these magnificent mollusks into seriously good eats.
Some six and half billion pounds of mollusks are harvested from the world's waters each year. That means that besides making up the animal kingdom's second largest phylum, they are the most popular seafood on the planet earth. If you've never pondered their variety just take a stroll down any American beach and just look down. That sand you're crunching on is actually the crushed remains of zillions and zillions of mollusks. That's because mollusks have shells. Now, in the case of a snail or a nautilus it's one shell.
|But in the case of, say, clams, scallops, oysters or mussels there are two shells that oppose each other. That's why they call them bivalves.||
Bi-valve = 2 shells
Now, mussels are especially interesting because there are hundreds of varieties ranging from miniscule fresh water varieties up to 15 inch long marine mammoths. And almost all of these varieties are edible but some for reason we only press a small handful into active culinary service. Let's see, there are the green lipped mussels of New Zealand which usually arrive in this country frozen. And there are Mediterranean mussels which are being cultivated now out in the Pacific Northwest. But most of all there, well, common or blue mussels and these are the mussels that monopolize the mussel munching plates of both American and European eaters.
When it comes to bivalve real estate there is only one concern: location, location, location. Now, clams like to dig down into the sandy bottom while scallops are content to just scutter along the top of it like poltergeist powered castanets. But mussels are professional hitch-hikers and they can adhere themselves to almost any surface via a tangled mass of glandularly produced threads threads called a byssus or beard. And it's this natural Velcro that makes the cultivation or farming mussels not only possible but potentially profitable. Oh, look. Here's a mussel farm now.
GUESTS: Mussel Farmers
This method of cultivating has been done in Spain for
centuries and centuries. It's called 'rafting.' Instead of
cultivating and harvesting the mussels right off the bottom of the ocean which
can really interrupt the floor—really messes things up—here they are literally
grown on hundreds of ropes just suspended into the ocean. This way you get
maybe a thousand, two thousand, heck, three thousand mussels off each one of
these ropes. And since they're suspended off the floor there's no mud,
there's no silt and they all are hanging in the food chain. Since they're
filter feeders, they eat off the plankton that just goes drifting by. It's
really taken off here in Maine where the water is especially plankton rich and
it makes for a much better product on the plate. It's got a much bigger
meat for smaller amount of shell.
Ah, here we are at Tolef's place.
AB: Morning, guys.
Ah, into the chilly bri...
MUSSEL FARMERS: ... the water's up to 38.
AB: 38. Heck, I should have brought my suit.
This method of mussel farming was invented by an Irishman named Patrick Walton who in 1235 found himself ship wrecked on a desolate stretch of French coastline. Hoping to snag a few sea birds for dinner he rigged a net between several stakes driven into the sand just off shore. He didn't catch many birds but a few days later he pulled up the stakes and voilà, lots of mussels. Now, why would a modern aquaculturist like Tolef Olson use Walton's method?
TOLEF OLSON: Well, this way we're able to control our supply.
But even more
importantly than that is the quality of the mussel we're bringing up. A
mussel like this in the wild probably takes 7 to 9 years to grow to maturity.
TO: So you end up with a heavy shell, a small meat, a tougher meat. We can bring these to market in 12 to 18 months depending on the seed size that we put down or even as little as 10 months. That allows them to focus all their energy on growing the meat and not on the shell so we get a large meat of superior quality.
AB: Now, you guys usually don't bring up the whole harvest this way, do you?
TO: No, no. When we're doing a commercial harvest it's all mechanized. We bring a barge in and we bring them up by, literally, by the tons. But on a day like today we're just getting some for a local restaurant and for our own use.
AB: Hey, I got a hitch-hiker here. [holds up star fish]
TO: Yeah, we pick up a few star fish. When we put the raft in last summer we had a duck problem early on and the ducks ate a bunch of the seed off of the line ...
AB: They just dive right down and snag them, huh?
TO: ... Yes, the eiderdown ducks and the scoters ... and what that does it leaves gaps in the line where we've seeded the seed and that's a place ... gives an opportunity for the star fish to land, the spats—the starfish spat—will land on the line. If the columns are perfect without the duck damage, there's no real good place for them to land ...
spat = larva
AB: Can't get a foot hold.
TO: ... and then we don't have a problem.
AB: Leg hold, so to speak.
AB: So obviously these aren't all ready for the plate. You've got a lot of little guys in here. So what's ...
TO: No. That's the other thing we get, too, as a problem with the ducks. When they knock the seed mussel off the rope it creates gaps and then the mussel spat also settles onto the ropes so we end up with ...
TO: ... two generations. We've got your market size ...
TO: ... and then we have our seed size. And when we harvest we'll put the seed size right back down.
AB: Ah, so you're just going to recycle these back.
AB: So there's no waste in this operation.
TO: No, there's no waste. They'll go right back down on new ropes.
AB: So, basically this is the one seafood, at least that I can think of, that is absolutely better cultivated than wild.
TO: Yes. There's absolutely no doubt about it. I don't think anyone would argue that.
AB: Wow. So, we've got to pick all these off by hand, huh?
AB: All right. Let's get to it.
This beard or byssus is so tough, so resilient that in Ancient times Greek fishermen, their wives, actually wove gloves out of these for them to use as work gloves and they would stand up to a whole life time of use, sometimes generations. They would be handed down. The trick was that you had to keep them in a bucket of water. Salt water.
Mussels are sized on
"Grading Tables' fitted with bars
that can be set to allow different sizes to pass through.
Having spent several hours grading mussels in the cold Maine afternoon, I thought I knew Tolef well enough to ask him for his number one piece of seafood buying advice.
TO: Watch the date when you buy it. Don't buy old seafood. Seafood is delicious. And so many people think they don't like seafood because they've had inferior ...
Never buy old seafood!
TO: ... seafood. Watch your dates when you're buying seafood.
AB: Well, it's right there on the lot tag, right, so ...
Every container of bivalves sold live in this country bears one of these. It's called a bed or lot tag. It's kind of like those tags on a pillow or mattress. You can not remove it by penalty of law and that's because it bears all the information about where those mussels came from, who packed them, when they were packed, everything.
That way, just in case somebody does get sick from the mussels, which is extremely rare, there will be a paper trail to let investigators know where exactly they came from.
Now, if you buy mussels in a smaller, consumer pack, take a look at the little twist tie. You'll notice that there's a code on it or a series of numbers. Those cross reference that very same tag. So keep hold of it if you buy mussels this way.
Now, it's not absolutely required for your fishmonger to keep
these tags visible, but mine does. He keeps it right up there in the
window where the mussels are. And you know what? That shows me respect. I like that.
Immediately post harvest the mussels proceed directly to a processing plant where they are detangled, debearded, divorced from any, uh, uninvited hangerers-on then washed, sorted, packed and shipped live and well to a grocer near you.
Since they don't have fins or scales or faces for that matter you might expect mussel evaluation to be less than a snap. But, a snap is exactly what you're looking for—at least a sluggish wink.
Ask your monger to hand you an open mussel. Now, if it closes by the time he hands it to you or if it does when tapped it's alive. Now, it may not close all the way, but the more movement you see the better. Now, if all the shells are closed, just grab one and try to scoot the shells back and forth across each other. If there's not budging, you're good to go. Finally, take a good deep sniff. [sniffs] If something smells rotten, that's right. Probably is.
Now as for the amount, I usually go by count not weight. Seven to eight large mussels per head make a good first course while 15 to 20 are a generous main course. But, I always add at least one extra serving to the order. You'll see why soon enough.
appetizer = 7-8
The trick now is to keep your mussels alive. Feel a little funny about having living things in your refrigerator? Don't. As long as they are alive, they're not decomposing and as long as they're not decomposing they're not a bacterial play ground. But, there are some prerequisites for mussel longevity.
For one thing no water. Okay? Fresh water kills mussels. They're marine creatures, right? The second thing they've got to have is air. That's why I never put them in a plastic bag or in plastic wrap. Go with a big bucket, bowl, pan or a Lexan like this. Three, they've got to have humidity. I like to just take a few folds of paper towel, moisten it lightly and lay right across the top. Last but now least, they must have cold. Cold slows down their metabolism. Since cold sinks instead of rises, I like to put a Zip bag full of ice cubes right on top. Change this daily.
change ice daily
Kept moist and cold, mussels can live out of water for a week or more.
GUEST: "W", Equipment Specialist
Deciding on a mussel cooking method requires a little deductive reasoning. I mean, here we've got a bunch of fragile little creatures holed up inside miniature fortresses. Now, not only do we want to open up those fortresses and extract those miniature creatures, we want to cook them to perfection and preserve all of their liquid at the same time. Hmm. Sounds like we need steaming. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean we need a fancy electric steamer or one of these not so fancy bamboo steamers. Now, we don't need a insert made to go inside a special pot. But, we do need a pot and since a pot is something we often need I think we better put W on the case. Or should I say, out of the case.
AB: So, W, pots.
W: You want an 8 quart pot with a tight fitting, flat lid and two large, riveted handles. And no metal disks soldered onto the bottom either. Most metals oxidize to some degree, that is bond oxygen which creates a protective barrier two millionths of an inch thick.
AB: I love it when she talks metallurgy.
W: Sulfur compounds like those found in eggs and the acid in wine easily remove this layer and attack the metal beneath.
AB: Okay, how about cast iron?
W: Iron and unfinished aluminum are especially vulnerable. Enameled cast iron gets around the reaction but it's a beast to clean and prone to cracking.
AB: Anodized aluminum?
W: Anodized aluminum is acid impervious but the surface is vulnerable to abrasives and dropping. Stainless steel is your best non-reactive bet. But it needs to be clad with another metal to be thermally efficient.
AB: Clad? Exactly what is that?
W: The best steel pans have a layer of another more conductive metal either aluminum or copper sandwiched between the steel layers. Such pans are more expensive but they last basically forever.
AB: Well, it looks like steel pan ally for us.
W: Hey, I'm not finished.
AB: Case closed.
Now, as I said, we're not going to need any fancy inserts to take care of the steaming but a good colander is a great multi-tasker and if it happens to fit inside the pot well then you've got a really great steaming rig. If it doesn't fit inside the pot, heck, just buy yourself a cheap $4 colander, crush the handles in with pliers, you're good to go.
|Here's our plan. Position mussels in colander inside pot over flavorful liquid, heat said liquid utilizing the resulting vapor to cook the mussels who in a futile attempt to regulate their rising body temperatures will open their shells releasing their liquids which will become part of the flavorful liquid which will become a sauce which we will later serve on top of the bowl of mussels.||
|Behold, our flavorful liquid. Three tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of minced garlic, 1 large leek cleaned, trimmed and chopped, 1 tomato preferable a ripe roma seeded and chopped and 1 and one half cups of white wine.||
3 Tbls. olive oil
2 Tbls. minced garlic
1 large leek, cleaned, trimmed & chopped
1 ripe tomato, seeded & chopped
11/2 cups white wine
|We start by sweating about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil with the garlic and the leeks. Now, you noticed I put this together in a cold pan. That's because we're going to sweat not sauté and since we want to get a lot of flavor out of those vegetables very quickly while softening them it's very smart to add a pinch of salt. That will draw out the moisture. Now, put this onto medium low heat and cook until the vegetables soften. Now, musselward.||
pinch kosher salt
medium low heat
Since they spawn during warm
mussels taste better in the fall, winter & early spring.
Paul / Leverman, Lowly
Really Mad French Chef
These days most mussels make it to market relatively muck free. But just in case, I like to give them a pre-cook spray down. I also like to go over them and look for anything that's kind of crusty. Just kind of brush it off with a stiff brush. Occasionally you're going to find a mussel that, aah, that still has his beard intact. In that case, leave it on until right before cooking. Then take a clean pair of needle nose pliers, grab the beard right down at the base and just ratchet it out like that. Hey, that makes this a lever. I wonder kind.
|LEVERMAN: Who's Paul? I'm Leverman. And that, my good man, is a 1st class lever.||
1st Class Lever
AB: As opposed to what, a low class lever?
LM: No, you putz. As opposed to a 2nd class lever.
AB: Okay, Paul.
LM: I'm not Paul. I'm Leverman.
Whatever. By they way, don't put this
down the garbage disposal, okay? It's like a handful of nails. Eww.
As soon as the aromatics are nice and soft, and they are, go ahead and add the tomato and the cup and a half of white wine. Turn the heat up to medium high and bring that to a simmer.
And heh, you know that old adage about cooking with wine?
REALLY MAD FRENCH CHEF: You must never, never cook with wine that you would not
AB: Okay. You want to taste, chef?
RMFC: [sips and spews]
Mussels can filter up to 25 gallons of water per day.
|If chef had let me finish my sentence he would have heard how I feel about cooking wine. You see, I don't think it's got to be great. In fact, unless I'm planning to reduce it down into a glaze or a pan sauce I never lay out more than one dead Lincoln for cooking wine. After all, what do I really want out of it? A little acidity, a little fruitiness, and just enough alcohol to extract the alcohol soluble flavors from things like the tomatoes.||
AB's Funky Jug O' White Wine
Now, our liquid is at a boil so it's time to introduce our little friends to their final resting pot. Just insert the colander right in there, lid it up and start a three minute count down.
If it really tries, a mussel can actually move up to one foot per day.
Three minutes have gone by and it looks like we've had a little bit of rising in there. They've actually pushed the lid right off the pot. So take a look. Odds are real good everything is open. If they're not, just kind of move them around, clamp the lid back down and give them another 30 seconds. It's probably just because they don't have enough space. These are all wide awake and ready to go or not wide awake. So, I'm just going to dump them right in the bowl.
If you see anything that's not open and it looks it's dead, get rid of it right away because there's nothing worse than a dead mussel. See that? There's a crack there. That one's never going to open. He's a goner.
Not open? Get rid of it!
Okay, turn your attention to the liquid. There's a lot
of flavor in there now. The mussels have opened up, released all of their liquor.
But, we need something to kind of thicken them up a little bit. That's too thin to really be called a sauce.
Now, traditionally this dish has ... calls for butter or cream and lots of it to thicken it up. But I got to tell you, I'm already Sans-a-belt challenged here. So, I'm going to look for something that will add flavor and texture without a lot of calories.
The answer, mussel meats themselves. Just reach in and grab about 10 of your mussels. Just pull them right out of the shell like that. Watch for pieces of shelling. And throw them into a bowl. Just let them cool down a little. You can scoop right out. You don't need to use a spoon or anything else.
10 mussels (meat only!)
As you can see we've got a lot more liquid than we actually
started with because of all the liquid that the mussels released. So, it's
time to thicken this up. Of course, that [throwing them in] won't do it,
but this [stick blender] will.
Now, if you don't have stick blender, that's okay. You can do this in a bar blender, too, as long as it's got a good tight lid on it. I don't suggest doing it in a food processor, though. It will make a really big mess. There. That's exactly what we're looking for. Now, there's nothing left to do but to plate, sauce and eat. Just pour everything right on top. Aah. There.
|Now, you could serve it just exactly like that. But you know a little bit of chopped parsley might be nice. We like to call this, "bammage." There we go.||
Now, we suggest you serve this with a nice loaf of crusty bread. It makes excellent sop and that's good because it will keep you from licking out the bowl when you're finished. I hear that that's okay in some cultures. I'm pretty sure this isn't one of them.
1 loaf crusty bread
Mussel meats can range
in color from white to orange,
this variance does not effect [sic] quality.
I believe it was Miss Piggy who said of bivalves, "I can't imagine why anyone would want to eat something slimy that comes on an ashtray." Well, clearly the divine Miss P. never locked snoot with the likes of these. Besides, had she known of the mussel's many health benefits, she would have squealed a different tune.
AB: Right, doc?
DOCTOR: Why, yes. Besides vitamin B and omega fatty acids, mussels contain as much protein as beef but with only a quarter of the calories and none of the saturated fat. Dollar for dollar, mussels can't be beat protein wise. Now, soybeans on the other ha ...
AB: Got soybeans. Another show. Another show. Another show.
Now, we hope that we've inspired you or at least coaxed you out of your shell regarding the humble mussel. Look at it this way: they don't require any digging, no shucking, and look they even make their own utensils. Yum. That's not only convenient, that's good eats.
RMFC: [spews wine again]
Last Edited on 08/27/2010