I love the appearance of mussels: a rich saffron colour, and they sit so prettily in the blue, boat-shaped shells. To me their aroma and flavour are the very essence of the sea.
Some people accuse them of being dangerous to eat, but in fact mussel poisoning (unpleasant, though never dangerous) is positively rare. If you know how to buy mussels and how to deal with them, the risk is negligible. I would point out, however, that all shellfish are highly perishable. So you should always eat mussels (and any other type of shellfish for that matter) on the day you buy them.
Mussels are at their best in cold weather, so their season is usually from October to March. When you see them in a fishmonger’s, a sign of freshness is that most of them are tightly closed: if there are a lot of ‘gapers’ don’t bother. When buying mussels you need to allow at least 1 pint (570 ml) per person for a first course, and 1½-2 pints (about 1 litre) for a main course. That may seem a lot, but some will have to be discarded and, once they have been shelled, mussels are very small and light.
The ritual of cleaning and preparing them sounds more bother than it actually is. When you get them home, dump the mussels straightaway into a sinkful of cold water. First of all throw out any that float to the top, then leave the cold tap running over them while you take a small knife and scrape off all the barnacles and pull off the little hairy beards. Discard any mussels that are broken, and any that are open and refuse to close tight when given a sharp tap with a knife.After you’ve cleaned each one, place it straight in another bowl of clean water. When they’re all in, swirl them around in three or four more changes of cold water to get rid of any lingering bits of grit or sand. Leave the cleaned mussels in cold water until you’re ready to cook them. As an extra safety precaution, always check mussels again after cooking – this time discarding any whose shells haven’t opened.
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