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It's been a long time coming, but the blue mussel of North America is finally getting respect. Although Native Americans have long enjoyed them, as did many European settlers, mussels have been largely ignored by diners on this side of the Atlantic. Fortunately, with mussel farms booming, North Americans are waking up to the exquisite taste and value these bivalves offer.
Mussels have been popular in Europe for centuries, but it wasn't until the mid-1970s that a few pioneers in New England and Canada saw their potential on this continent and began to cultivate them. Today, mussels are readily available and have been embraced by gourmet chefs of all stripes.
While blue mussels are the most broadly distributed worldwide there are two other varieties of the bivalve available. The Mediterranean mussel, Mytilus galloprovincialis, is now being farmed in Washington state and California. They are originally from Spain and are becoming popular with chefs for their larger size and plumper meats.
Greenshell mussels from New Zealand (Perna canaliculus) are increasingly common on restaurant menus and in some seafood markets, with vividly colored namesake shells. In retail, greenshell mussels are sometimes sold frozen on the halfshell, ready to be broiled with a flavorful topping.
Mussels are grown in two ways: on the bottom of the sea in cultivated beds, and off-bottom, on ropes or poles suspended in the water. Cultured mussels have several advantages over wild product: the meat content is usually higher, the shells are smoother and the meat is free of grit and pearls.
Cultivated mussels have thin, light, jet-black (to slightly brown) shells. Be sure that shells are closed, indicating that the creature is still alive. Gaping shells or an off odor suggest the opposite. If the shells are open and don't close after you squeeze them together, or if you can slide the shells from side to side, the mussel is dead and should be discarded. Incidentally, the flesh of females is orange, while that of males is white; the color variances are no indication of quality or taste.
About 20 - 25 blue mussels generally make up a pound, while some smaller harvests may run up to 40 per pound; Mediterranean mussels may be as large as 10 to 15 per pound. Plan on about a half-pound of mussels per person for appetizers and a pound or more per person for a main course. Depending on the mussels, you will get from about 6 to 8 ounces of meat from one pound of mussels.
China and Spain lead production worldwide, while here in North America, the Maritime provinces, especially Prince Edward Island, provide most of Canada's supply of blue mussels. New England, especially Maine, is the largest U.S. producer of blues. On the West Coast, Washington state, and to a lesser extent, California, produce both blue mussels and Mediterranean mussels.
Mussels are still the bargain bivalve at the seafood counter-in some places you can find them on special for a dollar a pound, though $2 to $4 a pound is more common. Although good quality mussels are available year-round, mussels are at their meatiest from October to May, before they spawn. (After spawning, a mussel's meat content can drop by about 10%.) Mediterranean mussels, however, spawn in the winter, so they are best during the summer. Store mussels in the coolest part of the refrigerator with plenty of air so they can breathe. Do not let the mussels sit in fresh water which will kill them. Storing the mussels in a colander set inside a large bowl covered with a damp cloth is ideal.
Mussels have a distinctive flavor, somewhere between that of clams and oysters. They are equally suited to simple preparations with just a splash of wine or a dish with spicy Asian flavorings.
Mussels are highly nutritious, with a 3 1/2-ounce serving having 86 calories, 11 grams protein, 2.2 grams fat, 28 milligrams cholesterol, 286 milligrams sodium and .4 gram of omega-3 fatty acids, more than any other shellfish.
To stay anchored to their undersea moorings, mussels develop what's known as a byssus or beard, which they use to fasten themselves to rocks or ropes with a tough adhesive. Mussels are often debearded by the processor, but if yours haven't been, wait until just before cooking to yank off the byssus.
Mussels, like clams, cook very quickly. The most popular method, and the easiest, is to steam them in a little water, white wine or beer. Mussels are also delicious in seafood stews, on pizzas, in pasta dishes and broiled on the half-shell for fancy hors d'oeuvres.