Recently, I picked up a few pounds of mussels at the grocery store on a whim. On Sunday night, my husband and I hovered over a large pot, peering down at the shiny shells in a broth of white wine, garlic, parsley, and butter. I made a salad with a simple vinaigrette and sliced a loaf of good bread. It took us only 20 minutes to get dinner on the table, and the shellfish had clocked in at just $3 a pound. Sopping up the garlicky, buttery sauce with crusts of our bread, my husband proposed, “From now on, let’s have mussels every Sunday.” Challenge accepted.
It’s not an exaggeration to call mussels a culinary miracle. They’re cheap and easy to cook, and take very little time to prepare. They’re very nutritious, and go well with a multitude of flavors. And as conscious consumers struggle to make complicated ethical and budgetary calculations at the grocery store and the fish counter, it will come as a relief to know that eating mussels is good for the environment—full stop. As fisherman and author Paul Greenberg told NPR recently, “Because things like beef really are a tremendous burden on the planet in terms of resources, we’re never going to get to the place where everybody on the planet can eat beef. But I do think we’ll get to a place where everybody can eat mussels.”
The reason that mussels are so sustainable has everything to do with how they grow. In the wild, mussels are found in shallow, intertidal areas, growing on rocks, pilings and the sea floor in large beds in which they attach to one another. Fisherman use rakes to dredge wild mussels, which may sound destructive. But as Lindsay Haas from Sea to Table, a sustainable seafood sourcer, told me, the mussels “are so tightly packed and tightly grown” that any bycatch is minimal, nor is there damage to the mussel beds. In the US, individual states work to keep harvests at a sustainable level, and wild mussels reproduce very quickly.
That said, farmed mussels do get a better rating on the highly respected Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch than wild mussels. That’s because mussel aquaculture is zero-input, meaning that the mussels don’t need food or fertilizer—unlike farmed shrimp or salmon, which require tons of feed and produce a great deal of waste. Bivalves also literally clean the ocean by straining plankton and other particulates from the water as they eat. This keeps oxygen levels in check, working to prevent the algae blooms that can be deadly to other sea life. Mussels are also effective at sequestering toxins in polluted water, which some scientists have started experimenting with as a cost-effective form of remediation, though these are not mussels that would then be sold for consumption.
Mussel farms are also very simple to set up, and because mussels consume toxins and bacteria along with plankton, aquaculture practitioners farm in very clean water. Sea to Table’s Haas also notes that mussels are low on the food chain, which further contributes to “a more sustainable food system overall.” (Clams and oysters are also filter feeders, and similarly sustainable. But mussels are cheaper, not to mention—in this writer’s opinion—generally tastier and easier to love.)
Then there are the nutritional benefits. Mussels are particularly high in omega-3s, clocking in at about 1,000 mg per three-ounce serving, nearly on par with salmon. Widely recognized as crucial to good health, sufficient omega-3 levels have been linked to better heart health, reduced inflammation, and may be associated with lower rates of cancer, though the evidence is far from conclusive. A single serving also contains 20 grams of protein, 19% of the recommended dose of Vitamin C, and a striking 340% of the recommended dose of Vitamin B-12.
But the best reason to eat anything, really, is because it tastes good. And on that account, mussels really deliver.
Strangely, by many accounts, even shellfish-loving New Englanders have long seen mussels as a sort of second-class mollusk. Their inclusion on menus is only thanks to the influx of French and Italian influence in American cuisine. But mussels are unequivocally delicious—plump and meaty, without that thick, gooey quality that keeps some people away from oysters and clams.
And if you purchase farmed mussels, they barely have any grit to remove at all. I hear that moules frites, a classic pairing of mussels cooked in white wine with herbs and served with a side of fries, has enough broad appeal in France to be a common entry on children’s menus.
The real secret power of mussels is that you can flavor them in a million different ways, and they cook very quickly, with minimal seafood smell. The cooking process fills your kitchen with the aroma of whatever ingredients you put in the poaching liquid—not the smell of low tide. If you need a bit of culinary inspiration, this Washington Post food section story offers up eight different mussels recipes, with flavors from all over the world. Or, if you want to make up your own recipe, a good rule of thumb is that 1.5 pounds per person makes for a generous serving.
A few last tips: First, while you’re washing the mussels under cool water, check to make sure that they’re alive when they go in the pot. Any that don’t close when you tap them are goners. After they’ve cooked, toss any that haven’t opened. And make sure you serve the mussels with a food to soak up the cooking liquid—bread, pasta, or faro are all solid choices. You’re going to want to make the most of every last drop.