Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Would you like some mussels with your grit?

I'll put up with almost any unwanted element found in food if I can remove it: feathers on chickens, worms in fish, bugs in vegetables, or dirt caked onto really good potatoes you get at the farmers' market. But grit inside the mussels drives me nuts, and as much as I love mussels, I haven't cooked them for over a year after a terrible experience with mussels on the Cape. The guy swore that all I have to do is rinse them!!!

What's so annoying about the grit inside the mussels is that it's INSIDE! I've tried every trick known to man to get rid of it: soak them in salted water, soak them in salted water with cornmeal -- nothing really worked. Unfortunately, grit is one of those things I just don't tolerate, and it's not ok to remove most of it, I need to remove absolutely all of it to make mussels worth eating. Finally, I think I have a solution. Here are 3 things that worked for me:

1) Buy farm-raised mussels.
They are farmed on ropes that are raised above the ocean floor minimizing the amount of grit that gets into them. Most of them come from Prince Edward Island and are sold as P.E.I. mussels. For years fishmongers told me that wild mussels are tastier than P.E.I. (supposedly more flavor). For years I believed them. But after trying both types repeatedly, I actually prefer P.E.I. They are plumper and way less gritty. I am not sure about the flavor difference, but I'll gladly trade some flavor for less grit.

2) Clean mussels thoroughly.
Fishmongers always try to downplay this part. My guess is they don't want to discourage us from cooking mussels. I had fishmongers tell him that farm-raised mussels need absolutely no cleaning. "Just put them in the pot right out of the bag!" Even with farm-raised mussels that doesn't work. Here is how I store and clean them. When you bring mussels home, put them in a bowl, cover with a wet towel and put in the fridge until ready to use. This ensures that they can breath, but don't dry out. When you are ready to cook your mussels, cover them with cold water in a bowl and agitate with your hands. There is no need to add salt to water. A few minutes in fresh water won't kill them (though prolonged soak without salt will). Scoop out the mussels with your hands into another bowl and pour out the gritty water. Repeat until the water is not gritty any more. You can simplify the process by using a salad spinner as long as you wash it thoroughly afterwords. Don't spin your mussels dry, but the holey insert makes removing them out of the water easy.

3) Check the mussel liquid for grit
When your mussels are clean, put them in a pan that is large enough to give them room to open while the pan is covered. Don't use a non-stick skillet if you don't want the mussel shells to scratch your Teflon coating. There is no need to add water since mussels will release their own incredibly delicious liquid, but a splash of white wine can be good. Set the pan over high heat, cover, and wait for the mussels to open. This can take 3-5 minutes, and it's important not to overcook them. I start checking them at 3 minutes and check every 30 seconds after that. Once the mussels open, remove them to a bowl leaving the liquid in a pan. Carefully pour the liquid over them, leaving the grit (if any) in the pan.

I know what some of you are thinking. "What about shallots, garlic, tomatoes, or other fun flavorings?" Most recipes start by having you cook some aromatics in the pan before adding mussels. That's all good as long as there is no grit in your mussels. Otherwise those lovely tomatoes will be gritty and there is no way to take the grit out at that point without removing all those delicious aromatics that you probably wanted to eat. A more labor intensive approach, but a safer one is to cook all your aromatics in another skills. When your mussels are ready, pour their liquid over the aromatics being careful to let any grit stay on the bottom of the pan where the mussels cooked. Boil the aromatics with the mussel liquid for 30 seconds or so and pour over your mussels.

You can flavor mussels with almost anything. Here are some ideas:
  • shallots, white wine, garlic, parsley (save to sprinkle in the end)
  • shallots, garlic, chilies, coconut milk, lime juice, cilantro (save to sprinkle in the end)
  • shallots, garlic, tomatoes, basil (save to sprinkle in the end)
I am sure you can find recipes galore on-line and now that you know how to avoid grit, there is nothing to stop you from trying all those cool ideas. One thing I love to do is to swirl a piece of butter into the mussel liquid before pouring over the mussels. Oh, and go easy on salt. Mussel liquid is naturally salty, so taste before adding more.