Mussels, difficult? A myth without legs

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: November 15, 2013 12:36 IST

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Mussels, difficult? A myth without legs
I have a friend who makes kimchee from scratch, can produce molecular-cuisine-inspired foams and gelées and has even deep-fried an entire Thanksgiving turkey on his petite patio.
But steaming a pot of mussels? Now that intimidates him.

That cooking mussels is a scary proposition is an all-too-common misconception. Mussels are not only inexpensive and highly sustainable, but they are also one of the easiest proteins you can make, once you get to know them.

These days, most of the mussels you can buy have been farmed, which means they come pre-cleaned and ready for the pot. Unlike their wild cousins, farmed mussels are not sandy or gritty, and arrive practically if not entirely beardless.

All you have to do is give them a quick rinse under the tap, then check to make sure they are all alive before they go into the pot. Dead mussels will gape open, and won't respond if you knock their shells together or try to squeeze them closed. If they close up somewhat, they're still living. Any that don't react at all should be tossed.

If you're lucky enough to find wild mussels and don't mind putting in a little more work, snap them up immediately. Wild mussels have a deeper, more saline and mineral flavor, but they will need a more thorough cleaning. And they often have beards as thick and long as a Brooklynite's, which will need plucking.

To clean them, first use your fingers or a knife to pull out their beards. Then soak the mussels in a bowl of cold water for about 20 minutes. This lets the bivalves expel any grit. Finally, scrub them under the tap.Most recipes call for steaming mussels in a mix of wine and aromatics. I also like to use the steam from sautéed vegetables, which turns mussels into a one-pot meal. Here I've sautéed cauliflower with chilies and shallots as the steaming bed. But other vegetables with a high water content will also work: cabbage and mushrooms as the winter approaches, corn and tomatoes in summer.

As with most salty sea creatures, a bit of acid makes them shine. In this recipe, a squeeze of lime does just that.

You'll end up with something savory, tangy and slightly spicy from the chilies. And there's nothing scary about that.

Spicy Mussels With Cauliflower, Basil and Lime

Time: 30 minutes

1/2 small head cauliflower

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 small shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 small red Thai chilies or other hot red chilies, seeded and finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Kosher salt, as needed

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed

1/2 cup torn basil leaves

Juice of 1 lime, more as needed

Crusty bread, for serving

1. Cut the cauliflower into small 1/2-inch florets; dice the stems. (You should have about 2 cups; save any extra for another purpose.)

2. In a large pot over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the cauliflower, shallots, chilies, garlic and a large pinch kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the mussels to the pot. Cover and cook over medium-high until most mussels have opened, 7 to 10 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels.

4. Stir in basil and lime juice. Season with kosher salt. Serve immediately, with crusty bread for soaking up juices.

Yield: 2 servings

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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