When I was a kid, spending a precious month every summer on the coast of Maine, mussels were a hazard we tried to avoid. At low tide, spiky beds of the blue-black mollusks clustered on the shoreline ledges that were our favorite playground; only those with the most calloused feet dared walk on them. If I look closely, I can still see the faint, vertical scars on my knees from falling on those damn mussel beds while playing flashlight tag (why our parents let us roam around on the rocks in the dark is a mystery, but no one came to any real harm). If we had wanted to eat mussels, they were there for the taking. But no one did.
Those mussel beds are gone, now, as are thousands along the Maine cost. Some blame the influx of green crabs, or warming ocean temperatures, or even the eider ducks. But no one really knows. And, somewhat ironically, we now eat mussels pretty regularly; rope-grown and sustainable, from Bangs Island Mussel Farm in Casco Bay or from Prince Edward Island—both sold at Harbor Fish Market in Portland. Like oysters, farmed mussels are an aquaculture success story, raised and harvested with respect for the ocean. And because they grow in the free flow of the water column, I’m sure they taste better than those mussels that cut my knees.
We make mussels lots of different ways: the classic, simple French style with garlic, white wine and parsley, in a light tomato broth, or Spanish-style, with saffron and bits of chorizo. This Thai-style recipe, fragrant with garlic, ginger, lime and cilantro, is one of my favorites. Restaurants often add lemongrass, a flavor I’m not fond of, but feel free to include it if you like.
If you enjoy mussels, but are nervous about cooking them at home, I assure you that nothing could be easier! All you need is a heavy pot with a lid—cast iron, like the one we used from Victoria is ideal. A deep skillet works too. First, make sure that your mussels are fresh; they should be tightly closed, or if slightly open, should close if you touch them. Give them a quick rinse, and if they have a “beard”—a bit of black fuzz along one side of the shell, pull it off. Be sure not to overcook them or they will be tough; they are done when they are open.
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/2 large shallot, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
- Juice and zest of 1 lime
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 tablespoons Sriracha
- 3/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish
- 1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk
- 2 lb. bag mussels, rinsed and de-bearded
- Salt to taste