Ask Peter: Cleaning mussels
I have noticed that mussels served in restaurants are free of barnacles, but the ones I buy at the supermarket are covered in barnacles that are impossible to remove. I also find it almost impossible to remove the beards until the mussels are cooked. And I often find small crabs inside the mussels that I have to hunt for and remove.
Sometimes there is a sort of dirty scum on the mussel flesh, which I imagine comes from the dirt on their outsides that I haven’t managed to clean off — and I have to rinse that off. I have often wondered how they manage all this in professional kitchens. Do restaurants use a different supplier of mussels? Kim
I must point out that the New Zealand way of selling live mussels is something I’ve rarely seen anywhere else. In the UK and US you generally buy your mussels packed into woven black plastic sacks — they’ll hopefully be alive, but they certainly won’t be kept in almost aquarium conditions like you find in New Zealand stores.
The mussels you find in most of the world, outside New Zealand, will also be much smaller and black-shelled, although I have seen green-shelled ones in Thailand. I have friends who find the New Zealand size way too big and the flesh too chewy, but I have to say I like both the smaller European ones and the larger New Zealand ones.
They may look and taste quite different, but what they do have in common is their beards — the fibres that allow them to anchor themselves to the ropes they’re grown on commercially, and also the rocks, jetty pylons and ships’ hulls when they’re growing wild.
The other thing they have in common are the barnacles that like to attach themselves to the shells. There is no easy way to remove the barnacles. Chefs use the back of a chef’s knife, or a sturdy main course knife. I’ve spent many hours holding a mussel in my left hand whilst I bash (by scraping with force) the barnacles off the shell. They come off relatively easily and you’ll be surprised how brittle the barnacle shells are themselves.
Once I’ve smashed off the barnacles then it’s time to remove the beards. The only way I have ever done this is to grab hold of the beard, as much as you can, and wiggle it backwards and forwards until it rips out from the body of the mussel. When the mussels are shut tight, as they mostly are, this can be tiring work and quite a chore, but I know of no other way.
If you’re going to serve your guests a large bowl of steamed mussels from which they’ll help themselves, simply let them know some may still have beards, and even crabs, inside them. I’m yet to see anyone who would feel appalled by that. Mussels are, after all, pretty much wild grown, even the cultivated ones live in the ocean or tidal bays, and nature has a way of not worrying too much about what we humans worry about.
If, on the other hand, you are serving mussels out of the shell, tossed with pasta, pickled in a vinegary brine, or chopped up or minced into fritters, then you can simply steam them open before you remove the beards and any wayward crabs. If you do happen to have crabs, then mince them up too — they’ll do you no harm.
I wonder if mussels are ticklish, as I imagine having a wee live crab wriggling inside the shell with the mussel flesh must be quite an irritant. The other great thing about the sale of live mussels— and this appears to me to be a relatively recent way of selling them (say no more than 15 years) — is that they are alive when you get them home.
Once I’ve cleaned them, one of my favourite ways of cooking them is to place 2kg in a large pot with 6 chopped fresh (unpeeled) tomatoes and a sliced red chilli. Add ½ teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, 2 tablespoons grated ginger, 1 tablespoon fish sauce and half a glass of white wine or fish stock.
Give it all a good stir, put a lid on and cook over high heat for 5 minutes. Stir again then continue to cook until all the mussels open. If after a further 4 minutes some are still shut, discard them, and tip the rest into a large bowl, scattering over a good handful of picked coriander and flat parsley.
See Celia Hay's step-by-step guide to cleaning mussels here
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.