Magnificent Mussels…


Prawns, oysters, lobsters are all highly prized on the shellfish popularity stakes but it baffles me why mussels don’t seem to be revered in the same way. This week, at my local fishmonger, Ballycotton Seafood, a 1 kilo net bag of spanking fresh Glenbeigh mussels for €5.00. So few euros for such a burst of deliciousness plus mussels have the most impressive nutrient profile of all shellfish.

They boost our immune system and are properly sustainable. They are cultivated on ropes suspended from floating rafts in the clean waters of various bays around the Irish coastline. They appear to be environmentally benign and some research seems to indicate that their cultivation has a beneficial effect on the marine eco system.

Of course there are wild populations too, but for most, the sweet plump cultivated mussels are easier to come by. Cheap and super easy to cook, plus they take on flavours from every continent around the globe. Mussels are the quintessential fast food; from fridge to table in less than 5 minutes…..A simple supper of warm freshly steamed mussels with a bowl of mayo and some brown soda bread is one of my all-time favourites. I still dream of those large green tipped mussels I enjoyed over and over again in New Zealand.

But first a few basics…

Mussels must be fresh – each shell should be tightly shut, if it is open, tap the mussel lightly on the worktop. If it reacts and begins to close it is obviously still fresh and alive – “but if in doubt throw it out”. Mussels like clams, roghans, cockles, palourdes are all bivalves they filter the water so the water needs to be unpolluted. All mussels you buy will have been purified as a precaution, so no need to be apprehensive. Store them in your fridge and enjoy while they are fresh and plump.

How to cook….

Pick over the shells, if there are any open ones that don’t close after a gentle tap, discard. Run under cold water, drain, at it’s most basic put in a sauté or a heavy frying pan or a  saucepan in a single layer over a medium heat. One can add a dash of white wine, chopped shallots and herbs, depending on the recipe. Cover with a lid, in two or three minutes the mussels will start to open. Lift out with a perforated spoon. Remove the beard, the beard is the little tuft of tough hair that attaches the mussel onto the rock or rope that it grows on, it’s not good to eat but is not dangerous. The mussels will exude lots of delicious briny juice which can be the basis of a sauce or chowder.

In Belgium, moules frites are the ‘must have’ dish in every bistro. Sitting around a table, tucking into crispy chips with a big bowl of freshly opened mussels and some mayo is a quintessential Belgian experience. In France, Moules Marinière in a richer sauce are equally irresistible. Moules Provençal or garlic mussels in English are universally loved by everyone from toddlers upwards.

Mussels take on Asian flavours deliciously so here is a recipe for Thai mussels in a spicy coconut broth – completely irresistible. And then how about mussels in the Goan style from South India and how about  mussels with Mexican flavours that will include Jalapeno, chorizo and maybe tequila. Chinese mussels will be steamed open with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce with lots of ginger, chillies and spring onions and maybe oyster sauce. Japanese mussels will also be teased open in Saki, but try Dynamite mussels which seem to pop up everywhere in Japan. The name refers to the burst of flavour from the topping. These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Pick up some Irish mussels next time you go shopping and start to experiment with recipes from around the world. Here are a few to get your started.

Moules Mariniere

Serves 4

Curnonsky, France’s Prince of Gastronomes, declared that Brittany is a paradise for concylliophages. Apparently that unpronounceable word means shellfish eaters. Ever since I discovered the word I’ve been longing to use it but haven’t managed to get my tongue around it yet! The legendary mussel dish, Moules Mariniere can now be found not only in this area but all over the world – anywhere mussels are produced.

1.8kg (4 lbs) scrubbed mussels, weighed in their shells

2 teaspoons chopped parsley

2 teaspoons chopped spring onions

1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

1 teaspoon chopped chives

2 teaspoons chopped fennel

225ml (8 fl ozs) dry white wine

4 tablespoons (5 American tablespoons) Hollandaise Sauce (see recipe)


freshly chopped parsley

Check that all the mussels are tightly closed and wash well in several changes of water. Steam open on a medium heat with the wine, herbs. and spring onions. Take the mussels out of the pan just as soon as the shells open. Remove the ‘beard’ and one shell from each.  They can be kept at this stage for some time, even for a day or two in the fridge, as long as they sit in the cooking liquid.

To Serve

Heat the cooking juices. When boiling, add the mussels, allowing them to heat through but not to cook any more. Remove from the heat and stir in the Hollandaise Sauce. Serve at once in deep old-fashioned soup bowls, sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley.

Mussels in the Goan Style

This is a great recipe in that most of the work can be done early in the day or even the day before.

The mussels can be replaced with clams, shrimp or monkfish and a combination of fish and shellfish may be used. Thick pieces of pollock also work well as do salmon and mackerel.

Plain boiled rice can be served with this dish or just crusty bread to mop up the delicious broth.

Serves 6

72 mussels

a 2.5cm (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

8 cloves of peeled garlic

110ml (4fl oz) of water

4 tablespoons of vegetable oil

200g (7oz) onion, peeled and chopped

1-2 fresh chilies, sliced into fine rounds

1/2 teaspoon of turmeric

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

1 1/2 tins (1 pint/600ml) of coconut milk


fresh coriander leaves

Wash the mussels, removing any loose beards. Put the ginger, garlic and water into a blender and blend to a smooth purée.

Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions. Cook until translucent. Add the ginger and garlic purée, chillies, turmeric and cumin. Stir and cook for a minute. Add the coconut milk and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. This broth can now be put aside for later.

When you want to serve the dish, put the mussels into the pan with the broth. Cover and place on a moderate heat and allow to come to the boil. Shake the pan occasionally and cook for approx.6 minutes. Check to see that all the mussels have popped open. Serve immediately with lots of fresh coriander leaves.

If using monkfish, bring the broth to the boil and add the collops of monkfish.  If using any of the other suggested fish, cut into 5cm (2 inch) pieces. Cover and simmer gently for approximately 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. It will no longer look opaque but will have a white and creamy appearance.  Serve in deep bowls garnished with coriander leaves.

Moules Provençale

Mussels are a perennial favourite; don’t skimp on the garlic in this recipe or they will taste rather dull and ‘bready’.

Serves 6-8

48 mussels, approx. 600g (1 1/4lbs)

Provençale Butter

75g (3oz) soft butter

2 large cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon olive oil

fresh, white breadcrumbs

Check that all the mussels are closed. If any are open, tap the mussel on the work top, if it does not close within a few seconds, discard. (The rule with shellfish is always, ‘If in doubt, throw it out’.) Scrape off any barnacles from the mussel shells. Wash the mussels well in several changes of cold water. Then spread them in a single layer in a pan, covered with a folded tea towel or a lid and cook over a gentle heat. This usually takes 2-3 minutes, the mussels are cooked just as soon as the shells open. Remove them from the pan immediately or they will shrink in size and become tough.

Remove the beard (the little tuft of tough ‘hair’ which attached the mussel to the rock or rope it grew on). Discard one shell. Loosen the mussel from the other shell, but leave it in the shell. Allow to get quite cold.

Meanwhile make the Provençale Butter. Peel and crush the garlic and pound it in a mortar with the finely chopped parsley and olive oil. Gradually beat in the butter (this may be done either in a bowl or a food processor). Spread the soft garlic butter evenly over the mussels in the shells and dip each one into the soft, white breadcrumbs. They may be prepared ahead to this point and frozen in a covered box lined with parchment paper.

Arrange in individual serving dishes. Brown under the grill and serve with crusty white bread to mop up the delicious garlicky juices.

Mussels with Thai Flavours

We love this recipe.   Use some of your precious fresh lime leaves to enhance the flavour.   Cockles, clams or collops of monkfish can also be used.

Serves 4 – 6

2 kg mussels

2 tablespoon sunflower oil

6 cloves garlic

1-2 Thai red chillies

1 stalk lemon grass, chopped

3 kaffir lime leaves

1 tablespoon fish sauce, nam pla

3-4 tablespoons chopped coriander

Check the mussels carefully, discard any broken or open shells.  Wash well, drain.  Crush the garlic and chop the chillies finely.  Heat a little oil on a medium heat, add the garlic and chilli and lemon grass and fry for a minute or two.

Add the nam pla and kaffir lime leaves and then the mussels.  Cover with a folded tea-towel or the lid of the pan.  The mussels will open in just a few minutes.

Add the chopped coriander to the mussel juices.  Divide the mussels between four hot plates, pour the hot juices over the shellfish and serve immediately.

Gok’s Chinese Mussels with Black Bean Sauce

Serves 4

2 tablespoons groundnut oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

2 sticks of celery, finely sliced at an angle

3 spring onions, finely sliced into rounds

1.5kg fresh mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded

75ml Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

2 tablespoons black beans, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

Heat the groundnut oil in a wok or saucepan with a tight fitting lid over a medium heat. When hot, add the garlic, celery and spring onions. Stir-fry these vegetables for 1 – 2 minutes until they are soft and beginning to colour.

Increase the heat to maximum and add the mussels, stirring so they are coated with the rest of the ingredients. Once they are combined, pour in the Shaoxing rice wine and immediately cover the wok with a lid.

Leave the mussels to cook for 4 – 5 minutes. Mussels are cooked when they have opened to reveal the coral-coloured flesh on the inside. Do not eat any that remain closed. As soon as they mussels are opened, tip the entire contents of the wok into a sieve set over a bowl, shaking they mixture to make sure all the liquid has drained through.

Place the wok back on the heat over a low flame, then pour the sieved liquid back into the wok and bring back to the boil. Once it’s bubbling, add the black beans, oyster and soy sauce. Cook for 4 – 5 minutes to reduce the mixture by a quarter.

Put the mussels back in the wok, along with all the other ingredients gathered in the sieve. Heat through and serve immediately.

Recipe from Gok Wan’s Gok Cooks Chinese Published by Penguin)

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


Past Letters

  • Recipes