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Mussels: Everything you need to know

Mussels on white background.

Mussels on white background. Credit: Dreamstime

Why are these mussels so puny?

That's what I wondered recently when confronted with a steaming pot of mussels at a Long Island restaurant that specializes in them. The shells were standard-sized but the mussels within were scrawny and pale.

Bart Molin, whose company, Gra-Bar Fresh Fish & Seafood, supplies seafood to restaurants, says this is an annual issue. "The size of the mussel depends on the time of year. In the summer we get these complaints here and there, but as we move into fall, it gets better."

The restaurant in question (like most) serves mussels from Canada's Prince Edward Island (PEI), an island province off the coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that supplies more than 70 percent of all North American mussels. The following account of the mussel's life cycle is drawn from, the website of the Mussel Industry Council of Prince Edward Island:

Mussels spawn in the spring, releasing billions of tiny larvae into the water. The larvae attach themselves to ropes suspended in the water. Once the mussels have reached about an inch in length (in October), they are stripped from the ropes and transferred into 10-foot-long plastic mesh "socks." The socks hang in the bays and inlets surrounding PEI. After 18 to 24 months, when the mussels measure about 2½ inches, they are harvested, washed, graded and de-bearded.

While peak consumption runs from early May through September, mussels are at their fattest from November through April. Len Currie, general manager of Confederation Cove, one of PEI's largest producers, explained that mussels "feed naturally on phytoplankton , and the largest phytoplankton blooms occur early in the spring," he said. "The mussels fatten up, feel frisky and that's when they spawn. Once they spawn -- usually starting in May -- they lose a considerable amount of their meat mass. The next bloom of food happens later in the summer when the water cools off. They start to fatten up again going into winter."

So much for what makes mussels scrawny. How about what makes them pale? Currie's response may be the best thing I learn in 2015: Pale mussels are male, orange mussels are female.

Mussels are one of the sea's most affordable gifts, usually selling for between $4 and $5 a pound. (Count on one pound per person.) Steaming them is simple as pouring about a half inch of water into a covered pot, bringing it to boil over high, adding the mussels and steaming until they open, 5 to 10 minutes depending on the amount mussels, level of heat and type of pot. For more flavor, steam them in wine or beer with aromatics such as herbs, garlic and/or shallots.


4 pounds large mussels, scrubbed

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 oven to 500 degrees. Spread mussels on a 18-by-13-inch baking sheet. Pour the wine over and roast for 10 minutes, 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. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Recipe from Rozanne Gold's "Radically Simple" (Rodale, 2010).


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