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The Fish Market

Demand for Mussels Grows in America

January 10, 1985|ISAAC CRONIN and PAUL JOHNSON | Cronin and Johnson are co-authors of "The California Seafood Cookbook."

Barely 10 years ago, most Americans, if they used mussels at all, put them on the end of a hook as bait. While Europeans have always prized the mussel, Americans have only recently turned to it as a food. Now the mussel boom is on. An increasing number of aquaculturists on both coasts are growing mussels, and they are hardly able to keep up with the growing demand.

The blue mussel, which makes up all of the commercial harvest, is found in the intertidal zone of all the temperate seas of the world. Mussels are best in fall, winter and early spring. In the warm months they spawn and tend to be watery. In the warm months they are also susceptible to red tide, a condition produced by a toxic micro-oganism.

Mussels, like oysters, are filter feeders, and their flavor is strongly influenced by the water they grow in. East and West Coast mussels can be as different as Pacific and Atlantic oysters. Find out where your favorites come from and you may be able to reorder them.

Select Mussels Carefully Fresh mussels should be closed or should close when tapped. Don't buy mussels with broken shells and avoid mussels covered with a large number of barnacles as this indicates age and a potentially tough mussel. Mussels are generally a good buy because they yield about 50% meat.

To clean mussels, scrub the shells with a stiff brush under cold running water. Remove the fibrous material (known as the beard), which protrudes from the shell.

Mussels are a great addition to fish soups and stews. They can be steamed open and eaten along with their juice or steamed and then shucked. The shucked meat can be used in salads and stuffings, breaded and deep-fried, or returned to the shell with other ingredients and baked.

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