Written by Maria Rainier
Last January, I spent a month traveling in Spain with an advanced language study group from my university.
Although we spent the majority of our time in Seville staying with host families and attending classes, we also visited Madrid and Cordoba, losing ourselves in the Alhambra and other incomparably beautiful sites.
The people we met were so happy, helpful and vivacious that I didn’t want to travel back to the States—the more relaxed pace of life in Spain seemed to have a salutary effect on everyone.
I was particularly fascinated by the language experiences I had, but every time we stopped for a meal, I had no choice but to take a real break (often longer than an hour) and enjoy the incredible cuisine of Spain.
Though we sampled everything from squid to sautéed cauliflower, the dish that still lingers on my palate, reminding me of everything I love about Spanish cuisine, is mejillones: mussels.
Every time I had them, I got a stronger taste of the essence of Spanish cooking.
I tasted fresh ingredients, bold flavor combinations, expert preparation, and extensive knowledge of the food being cooked in every bite.
The Spanish mussels I enjoyed so much were nothing like what’s served as appetizers in many American seafood restaurants. While the American versions are still tasty, they’re nothing like the inventive dishes of Spain.
Here in the U.S., the essence of the mussel is often masked by overcomplicated sauces or creamy additives. With mussels inspired by Spanish cuisine, I realized it’s important to keep everything clear, simple and deliberate.
Through incessant questioning and observing during my time in Spain, I picked up the following tips and techniques for mussel preparation. Use them for authentic mussel dishes that will impress even the toughest critic among your seafood-loving friends.
Buying and Cooking Mussels
It’s best to buy your mussels at a seafood market where you can choose your own, ensuring that they’re fresh and easy to work with.
Check to make sure that the mussels you buy are closed tightly, and try not to take any that are open or broken.
Once in the kitchen, use an old toothbrush and running water to clean off anything that might be adhering to the mussel shells. This is important for two reasons: you’re using the shells in your presentation of the cooked mussels and you don’t want to compromise the flavor of the wine you use to cook them.
When your mussels are clean, put them into a pot with a glass of white wine, cover them, and cook slowly over a low flame.
You can also measure a quarter cup of wine per dozen mussels, if you’d like to be more precise.
As soon as the mussels start to open, remove them from the heat. Break each shell into two halves, discarding each empty half.
Just prior to adding a sauce or salsa, gently loosen each mussel from the remaining shell halves, leaving them on the shells for serving.
This just helps your guests eat the mussels, but traditionally, they’re left unloosened. Either way, they’re meant to be consumed directly from the half shell.
Adding Flavor to Mussels
My two favorite ways of enjoying mussels are very different, but equally delicious. However, if pressed to choose, the first probably showcases the mussel flavor a little more.
The second is complementary, but the fresh ingredients tend to steal the show, especially if you have fresh heirloom tomatoes and onion.
- Compound Butter: Depending on how many mussels you’ve cooked, you can decide on the amount of each ingredient for this spread.
You’ll need fresh butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and finely chopped parsley. Soften the butter with a spatula, adding salt and pepper until well blended.
Next, gently stir in the garlic and parsley until you have a smooth spread with a soft texture.
Spread a small dollop onto each mussel, arrange on a platter, and serve warm.
- Salsa: This salsa resembles pico de gallo or chutney and adds fresh coolness to your mussel dish.
Depending on what’s available to you, choose fresh tomatoes, onion, green peppers, mango, cucumber, lemon or lime juice, and cilantro. To keep your dish simple, limit your ingredients to tomato, onion, lemon juice, and cilantro.
Simply chop everything finely and use the lemon juice (or more white wine) sparingly.
Top your mussels with the salsa, serve, and enjoy.
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