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Marvelous mussels: Delicious and affordable

Mussels are served steamed with lemon and butter,

Mussels are served steamed with lemon and butter, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The cultured mussels are grown in mesh stockings that are suspended from ropes in the water. These ropes are anchored at the bottom and suspended from a buoy. They are harvested during the winter months. Prince Edward Island produces 80 percent of North America's cultured mussels. Photo Credit: Getty Images, 2008

A bowl of steamed mussels, in a broth so fragrant with garlic and fresh herbs that the taste fills your mouth before you've even slurped the first tender bite, is a food experience like none other. It makes a wonderful appetizer for a festive dinner, but it also makes a surprisingly good midweek meal.

Mussels can be found year-round at any market with a decent fish counter, and at a price (about $3 a pound) that will leave money in your wallet for a nice bottle of wine.

Long Island mussels used to be harvested in profusion from Shinnecock Bay, said Ken Homan, president of Braun Seafood in Cutchogue. "There is still some wild local production," he said, but "now Prince Edward Island pretty much controls the industry." The "PEI" mussels are grown on ropes suspended in the Atlantic Ocean, where they feed naturally and leave the waters cleaner for their presence.

If you're not cooking the mussels right away, ice them in the refrigerator. "Oysters and clams need to be dry and cool," Homan said. "But mussels lose their juices in a dry, cool environment. Keep them covered with ice in a colander set over a bowl so that the water can drain."

Preparing the mussels for cooking takes only a few minutes. If a mussel has a "beard," grab it with your fingers or a pair of tweezers and gently tug the fibers out, using a side-to-side motion. Once beardless, give each mussel a quick scrub and discard any with cracked or broken shells. If the mussel is open, tap it gently against the counter and throw it away if it doesn't close within a few minutes.

Most mussels are held in tanks to flush out grit and other impurities before being sold, but freshly harvested mussels may need to be soaked in cool saltwater for a half-hour before cooking. Check with your fish seller to see if this step is necessary.

The key to sweet and tender mussels is not overcooking them. As soon as all the shells are open and the mussels inside have turned opaque, they're done. This takes at most 10 minutes of steaming in a covered pot, and often less. Undercooked mussels won't open their shells and can be discarded.

Most mussel recipes call for them to be steamed in a covered pot, but Rozanne Gold, author, most recently, of "Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease" (Rodale, $35), roasts them on a sheet pan in a 500-degree oven. "There's a lot more evaporation when you use a wide, shallow pan and a high heat," she said, "and the flavor gets very intense. These are very primal mussels."

Newsday reporter Erica Marcus contributed to this story.

SHEET-PAN MUSSELS WITH RED CURRY-GARLIC BROTH FOR A CROWD

The first two recipes are courtesy of Rozanne Gold

4 pounds large mussels, scrubbed, beards removed

2 cups dry white wine

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 large clove garlic

1/2 to 1 teaspoon red curry paste

Salt, to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Spread the mussels on a rimmed, 18-by-13-inch baking sheet. Pour the wine over the mussels. Roast for 10 minutes, or until the mussels open.

2. Melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the garlic pushed through a press and cook for 1 minute but do not brown. Pour 1 cup of the pan juices into the melted butter along with the curry paste. Boil for 1 minute, until thickened. Add salt to taste. Transfer the mussels to bowls; discard any that do not open. Pour the butter sauce over the mussels. Serve with basil-scrubbed toasts (see recipe, below). Makes 6 servings.

BASIL-SCRUBBED TOASTS

1/2 thin crisp baguette

1 large clove garlic

1 cup fresh basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the baguette slightly on the bias into 1/2-inch slices. Arrange on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven 5 minutes, until golden and crisp. Cut the garlic in half. Rub 1 side of each toast with the garlic, then with a handful of basil leaves until fragrant and green. Makes about 12 toasts.

STEAMED MUSSELS WITH FENNEL AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES

Poured into a bowl, so the broth catches in the open shells, this quick dish is ready to eat right away.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 small bulb fennel, thinly sliced

5 cloves garlic, minced

8 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced

3/4 cup parsley, minced

1 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons lemon juice, from 1/2 lemon

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed, beards removed

Zest from 1 lemon

1/4 cup heavy cream

Sliced baguette

1. Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots, fennel and garlic, and cook until the fennel becomes soft. If the garlic starts to brown, lower the heat. Stir the sun-dried tomatoes, 1/2 cup of the parsley, wine and lemon juice into the pan. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes to give the flavors time to meld.

2. Increase the heat to medium and add all the mussels to the pan. Cover with a lid and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until all the mussels have opened. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mussels to a serving bowl, discarding any that remain closed. Whisk the lemon zest and cream into the broth left in the pan and pour this over the mussels. Sprinkle the mussels with the rest of the parsley and eat immediately. Make sure there are plenty of baguette slices on hand to sop up the juices. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

MOULES MARINIÈRES (MUSSELS IN WHITE WINE)

This is the simplest and most classic preparation for mussels.

2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil or a combination of olive oil and butter

1 small onion (or large shallot), minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 pounds mussels, scrubbed, beards removed

1/2 cup dry white wine or Vermouth

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Film the bottom of a large stockpot with oil and add onion. Saute over medium heat until onion softens; add garlic and saute until it just begins to color. Do not let it brown. Add the mussels and wine and bring liquid to a boil. Cover pot, turn heat down to medium-high and cook, shaking the pan from time to time, for about 10 minutes, until the mussels are open. (Discard any that don't.)

2. Turn off the heat, add grinding of black pepper and the parsley. Divide the mussels among 4 bowls and pour cooking liquid over them. Makes 4 servings.

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