Whipped Out

Stuff that matters

Before mussels can be cooked, they must first be chosen. The process is a bit like selecting jurors for trial: you start with a random pool assembled by someone else, and eliminate any that are obviously disqualified – the broken, the dead. Some you can interrogate a little: tap any open mussels sharply against the side of the sink, and if they close up in response, they’re OK. One or two may be subject to peremptory challenge – you’re allowed to get rid of them without giving reasons, just because you don’t like the look of them. It’s not hard, but there’s a level of responsibility involved.

You also need to tug off their beards – generally a bit of whatever it is they were clinging on to when they were harvested, in most cases the rope they were grown on. Sometimes, they need a bit of scrubbing, but the mussels sold in nets on the supermarket fish counter are pretty clean – they’ve already been subjected to a level of abrading on your behalf. You can scrape off any remaining barnacles with the blunt edge of a butter knife, but honestly, unless you’re planning to photograph your dinner, I wouldn’t bother.

Mussels are an affordable and sustainable seafood, farmed under conditions that have few environmental drawbacks, and may even benefit local ecosystems. We really should be eating a lot more of them. However, when we speak of 17 different ways to cook mussels, we must quietly acknowledge there is really only one way: you need to steam them open. Virtually all mussel recipes start this way, and a fair proportion of them end this way.

At its most primitive, this might mean slapping them on a barbecue rack for a few minutes with the lid closed, but you can add an element of control by wrapping them up in a foil parcel first, along with some butter, garlic, shallots and white wine. This is basically an outdoor version of the classic moules mariniere, here perfectly described, in all its glorious simplicity, by Felicity Cloake.

There are hundreds of recipes that are essentially variations on this theme. When it comes to other flavours, mussels are nothing if not compatible. Chef José Pizarro offers mussels with wine and chorizo. Skye Gyngell favours Alice Waters’ version, with fennel, creme fraiche and saffron.

In place of white wine you can use dry cider, as Nigel Slater does or perry, with sage and clotted cream, like Nathan Outlaw. The general message is: lots of combinations work, and less is often more. Don’t be afraid to mix and match, or to leave out what you have not got.

For a south Asian spin try Nik Sharma’s turmeric and lime mussel broth. If the ingredients are different – ghee, garam masala, coconut milk – the process is eerily familiar. Jackie Middleton’s spicy mussels, lap cheong and coconut makes for a quick, unfussy, and yet ridiculous impressive weekday meal. She describes it as a reward for a well-maintained pantry, but mussels, as we have seen, also reward a poorly maintained pantry, so there’s hope for all of us.

If you’ve got the patience, mussels can be subject to further treatment beyond steaming. Slater is wont to spread them on a baking tray, cover them in bacon, horseradish and breadcrumbs and shove them under a hot grill for a few minutes. He is also partial to a mussel and grapefruit salad, which you may need some time to get your head round.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s battered mussels are deep fried and served with a walnut tarator – a rich sauce made from garlic, walnuts and breadcrumbs. Rosie Sykes’ mussels with tomato and fregola is concocted in one roasting tin, with the mussels only going in for a quick steam at the end. And no, I didn’t know what fregola was until I looked it up. It appears to be a pasta masquerading as a grain.

Mussels serve as a starting point for many other Italian pasta dishes – generally speaking, spaghetti, with linguine reserved for clams, although I couldn’t find this rule written down anywhere, and there are lots of examples of it being ignored, so don’t make a special trip to the shops. One such example is Jamie Oliver’s grandad’s mussel linguine. Just to be clear, the grandad in question is not Oliver’s, but that of his Italian mentor, Gennaro Contaldo. Mitch Tonks does a similar thing with spaghetti, bay leaf and chilli. Like any good bay recipe, it works without the bay.

Soup is one of the easiest things you can make with mussels – and the handiest, since a kilo of them is often more than you need for a meal for two, but perhaps not quite enough for four. Soup offers you flexibility.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall adds smoked pollack, celery, potatoes and cream to make a thick, substantial chowder. Slater’s clear mussel soup, on the other hand, uses a very restricted palate – lime, chilli, sugar, salt – that takes advantage of the mussel’s affinity with coriander. You may well suspect that mussels also have quite an affinity with Nigel Slater – he’s never not enthusiastic about them.

Finally, Gill Meller’s pickled mussels make a delicious – not to mention rather elegant – snack served with good bread and cold butter. This is not so much a method of preservation as a slow way of cooking. The mussels should steep for a few hours in the fridge before serving, although they can also be eaten straight away, which is, once you’re aware of the option, hard to resist.

The Guardian aims to publish recipes for sustainable fish. For ratings in your region, check: UK; Australia; US.