Flex your mussels

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Cookbook offers recipes from easy to adventurous along with tips for tasty molluscs

Alain Bosse has been cooking mussels for more than 30 years in his restaurants and wants to spread the love to home cooks who might be neophytes and to longtime fans who are seeking new ways to serve the tasty molluscs.

Canadian Curried Mussels. — Photo by The Canadian Press

The chef and co-author Linda Duncan have created a cookbook devoted to the versatile and sustainable bivalve, “Mussels: Preparing and Enjoying a Sensational Seafood” (Whitecap Books), which covers everything from the tried-and-true — mussels steamed with white wine — to surprises like cocktails, pickles and pies.

“They’re sort of the sponge of the sea. … I find that no matter what you cook them with the flavour that you add to the pot enhances the delicate flavour of the mussel. That’s why they’re so versatile,” says Bosse.

Flavourings can range from the traditional white wine, garlic, parsley and lemon to sweet Thai curry or bacon and tarragon.

Bosse and the Charlottetown-based Duncan, who is executive director of the Mussel Industry Council and former executive director of the P.E.I. Aquaculture Association, dreamed up 77 recipes.

“We wanted people to think outside the box when it came to mussels. Mussels are not just meant to be steamed, so we gave as many different recipe ideas as we could,” says Bosse, a.k.a. the Kilted Chef, Atlantic Canada’s culinary ambassador.

The book’s foreword is written by another culinary ambassador, P.E.I.’s chef, cookbook author and TV personality Michael Smith.

As well as using fresh mussels, they designed recipes for precooked mussels for people who end up with leftovers from prepping a big batch.

“We’re showing how to use them in a salad or on a pizza. ... You can even freeze the mussel meat afterwards in a broth and use it in chowder or make a beautiful sauce.”

Bosse, who is based in Pictou, N.S., says he loves doing mussel parties with family and friends. He sets up a bar with mussels in a cooler on ice, a variety of liquids — beer, wine, apple juice, root beer, sea water — along with ingredients like garlic, ginger and lime and squares of foil.

“You put your handful of mussels on the foil, create a little bit of a circle and then add whatever ingredients that you like, whatever liquid you like, close it, put it on the barbecue. When your bag starts to steam your bag is ready. You eat your mussels and you can throw everything back in the fireplace.

“The kids love it, which is kind of neat, especially at the cottage. The kids get to make their own and, honestly, the root beer mussels are to die for.” He experimented with several flavours of soda pop before hitting on root beer, he says with a laugh.

Cocktails have been created using broth and range from a mussel martini to a riff on a classic Bloody Mary that’s dubbed the Mussel Mama Cocktail in an ode to Bosse’s nickname for Duncan.

There is a chapter devoted to compound butters such as rosemary Dijon and maple cranberry, along with various breads like buttery asiago bread sticks, cheese and thyme biscuits and goat cheese crostini to serve alongside or to soak up the broth.

The specific nutritional breakdown of mussels depends on the species, but the molluscs are low-fat and gluten free. P.E.I. blue mussels contain fewer than 150 calories in a 500-gram (one-pound) serving. They’re high in iron, phosphorus, manganese and vitamins B12 and C.

The bulk of Canada’s mussels are grown in Eastern Canada, with P.E.I. producing more than 22.5 million kilograms (50 million pounds) of fresh blue mussels a year, which are sold across the country and in the U.S.

Many of the mussels that consumers eat from Atlantic Canada are farmed, spending their life eating plankton and growing on long lines suspended in the water, which has little impact on the environment and is highly sustainable.

Growers can adapt to the seasons, tidal patterns and food source. Mussels grow for 18 to 20 months and are harvested when they reach 55 to 60 millimetres. Being roughly the same size, they open at about the same time during cooking.

“Make sure that when you’re buying your mussels you can smell them,” Bosse explains. “If they smell like the sea, the mussels are perfect. If they smell like fish, you may not want to buy them. They’re probably at the end of their lifespan.”

Bosse says people used to be told to cook them immediately after buying. Mussels have a shelf life of 10 to 14 days. Keep them on ice in the refrigerator and drain the natural juices daily.

“Then there was that whole cloudy issue of how much liquid you put in them,” he adds. “Mussels are full of water themselves, so if you put a bottle of wine to cook five pounds of mussels you’re drowning your mussels. You need to keep that wine so you can drink it yourself. Don’t waste it on the mussels.”

Mussels are cooked in a little liquid so the shells don’t burn.

“If you do five pounds of mussels we recommend that you put two ounces of liquid in it. Then you end up with two or three cups of liquid at the end because all the mussels have released their own juices.”

This flavourful broth is perfect for making chowder, he notes.

Organizations: Mussel Industry Council, P.E.I. Aquaculture Association

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Pictou

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