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Tips take a closer look at mussels

Tidepooling on the coast last week, my younger son was fascinated with mussels clinging to the rocks.

How do they eat? What do they look like inside? Could he eat them? How would he get at their insides?

Given that he’d recently tackled oysters and given them a thumbs-up — enthusiastically for fried, less so for grilled — I have every hope he’d also appreciate mussels. They’re one of his dad’s favorite foods, and a shellfish I also prize for flavor, relative ease of preparation and sustainable status.

Of course, I told my son, mussels in fish markets and restaurants come from essentially ocean farms. Anyone who wants to wrest them from the rocks along the shore should check the state’s shellfish safety hotline.

For the uninitiated, mussels can be a bit intimidating. But a little cleaning is about all that’s needed to prep mussels for the stockpot. They cook quickly and don’t need much in the way of seasoning to be delicious. Here are some tips from The Daily Meal’s James P. DeWan on the topic:

How many mussels to buy per person?

Allow 1 pound of mussels per person. The edible yield is only one-quarter of the mussels’ weight, or 4 ounces per pound, which constitutes a serving of protein. If they’re only an appetizer, you can get away with less. If my son is anything like me, though, he could eat twice the standard serving.

How to store mussels?

Keep mussels in the fridge in a bowl that’s loosely covered by a damp cloth or paper towel. They’ll keep like this for a couple of days. Never store them immersed in water.

How to tell if mussels are fresh?

Mussels need to be alive when you cook them because their meat begins to deteriorate very quickly. So examine your mussels and evaluate their condition. First, they should smell fresh, like the ocean — not fishy. Any mussels with cracked or broken shells should be discarded, as they’re probably dead. Although it’s common for mussel shells to open a bit, they should close when lightly tapped. If the mussel still gapes open when tapped on the counter, it’s no longer alive and should not be eaten.

How to clean mussels?

Before cooking, dump your mussels into a colander in the sink and run cold water over them. If there is any dirt or mud stuck to the shell, clean it off with a clean sponge or brush. Then “debeard” the mussels by removing the little stringy bundle sticking out the shell. Use a dry kitchen towel to grasp and tug out these protein strands that anchor mussels to their perch.

How to cook mussels?

The most common way of preparing mussels is steaming. For this, you need a covered pot, a little bit of liquid and a little bit of time — usually five to 10 minutes. The saltwater in mussel shells turns into a kind of natural broth and mixes with the cooking liquid, delicious and perfect for sopping up with fresh, crunchy bread. You can steam mussels with plain water but you’re going to get a more robust tasting final product if you use wine, beer, cider or stock.

Herbs and aromatic vegetables like shallots, garlic, leeks, celery and carrots often are simmered with the liquid for extra flavor. You can also add a little heat with crushed red pepper flakes or fresh chiles like jalapenos or serranos. After the mussels are cooked, the liquid can be enriched with cream or butter.

Tribune News Service photo

Mussels Steamed in White Wine

6 tablespoons butter, divided and cut into roughly 1/2-tablespoon pieces

1 large shallot, peeled and cut into small dice

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 cup dry white wine

2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded

1/4 cup fresh parsley or other herbs, minced and divided

Salt, as needed

Crusty bread, for serving

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and sweat, stirring occasionally, until wilted and translucent, for about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the white wine and increase heat.

When wine comes to a boil, add the mussels and cover pan. When liquid returns to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and steam mussels, covered, until nearly all are opened, for about 5 to 10 minutes.

Turn off heat and, with a slotted spoon, remove mussels to serving bowls, discarding any mussels that have not opened. Whisk remaining butter into liquid to emulsify along with the minced herbs.

Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed.

Pour liquid equally over each portion of mussels and serve immediately with crusty bread.

Makes 2 servings.