Show me your mussels

Mussels are an inexpensive, easy dish to make any night of the week. They are special enough to be expensive in moderately priced restaurants, but inexpensive enough to be sold at any fish counter at your local grocer.

When you buy mussels, they are alive. Just like clams, oysters, and lobsters, mussels must be cooked while they are still alive. They should be sold in mesh bags or loose in a water trough. If mussels are packaged any other way, you should walk the other way because those mussels aren't fresh and most likely many of them are already dead.

Mussel shells should be tightly closed. If they are open slightly, they should close if you tap on the shell. If it doesn’t close, throw it away. Never use mussels that are cracked, chipped or broken.

To err on the side of caution, purchase mussels the day you are going to eat them. I wouldn't purchase them more than 2 days ahead. The fresher, the better. And speaking of ER--An old wives' tales says, mussels (well, shellfish in general) are the best during months that end in -ER (October, November, December...) That is true AND untrue.

During those -ER months, red tides (poisonous algal blooms) that occur in the ocean during the hot months affects the toxicity of shellfish, because shellfish filter water through their two shells (bivalves) and feed on the algae and plankton they find in it. The toxins from the algae are responsible for shellfish poisoning.

That being said, if you buy from a reputable fishmonger or a restaurant, the shellfish are required by law to be held in a place where the water is purified and zapped with an ultraviolet light to aid in the destruction of impurities. Bottom line: your shellfish are safe year round. If someone you know has gotten sick form eating shellfish, they got (un)lucky.


When you get your mussels home, they're going to be thirsty. They're going to be hungry. Your hunger trumps theirs so, soak them in cool fresh water mixed with some (1/2 cup or so) flour or cornmeal for a minimum of 30 minutes before cooking. The mussels will spit out the sand they have inside as they “eat” the flour/cornmeal you put in the water. The mussels will also plump up. I usually leave the mussels in the water for about a day.

Next, clean the mussels with a brush or your hands under running water. Some mussels may have a beard (a web that helps the mussel cling to rocks and their sand beds). Grip it and giving it good tug towards the hinge of the shell. Don't be scared to use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut it off.

Now... you're ready to cook.

Thai Herbed Mussels

Serves 6

2 ¼ lb mussels, cleaned and beard removed

2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped

4 shallots (1 1/2 cups), chopped

6 kaffir lime leaves, torn

2 red chillies, sliced

2 Tbsp lime juice

1 Tbsp oyster sauce

2 green onions, chopped

Cilantro leaves

Place all ingredients except for the green onions and cilantro in a large saucepan and stir thoroughly.

Cover and steam for 5-7 minutes, shaking the saucepan occasionally, until the mussels open. Discard any unopened mussels.

Transfer mussels to a serving dish and garnish with green onion, cilantro leaves, and serve immediately.

The mussels release lots of water, and there will be a considerable amount of broth in your pot. I call this potlikker (pot liquor). Do us all a favor and get yourself a hunk of bread and sop this up while you eat your mussels. You'll have a finger-lickin' good time. Trust me.

French bread rubbed with garlic and chopped cilantro

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About the author

Nikki Miller-Ka

Nikki Miller-Ka

Ms. Miller-Ka is a classically trained chef with a BA in English from East Carolina University and a Culinary Arts Associate Degree from Le Cordon Bleu-Miami.

Formerly, she’s worked as a researcher, an editorial assistant, reporter and guest blogger for various publications and outlets in the Southeast. She has also worked as a catering chef, a pastry chef, a butcher, a baker, and a biscuit-maker. Presently, she is a food editor, freelance food writer, and a tour guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

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  1. We're thinking of going to Brussels as part of a fall trip so you know that will including eating a few mussels.

  2. Definitely bookmarking this post. I've recently seen them for $6.00 lb., which makes a very cheap meal with pasta. The detailed (and simple) explanation of preparing mussels is helpful.

  3. Thanks for the lesson. I would never have known where to begin if I bought mussels. :)


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