Favorite

Winter strength 

Fortify your cold-weather diet with steamed mussels

click to enlarge Mussels: deserving of a silver-platter - presentation.
  • Mussels: deserving of a silver-platter presentation.

A s winter approaches, we often eat stews and hearty braises to warm the body and nourish the soul. Lest thoughts of heavy food bring despair, winter's cool waters provide a lighter alternative: plump, sweet mussels.

Simply steamed and served with crusty bread, they provide a satisfying autumnal experience. Better still, one can easily get up from the table when finished, though a nap in front of the fire remains an option.

Bivalves (mussels, clams, oysters, etc.) have long been important to the American diet. Once abundant along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, their healthy meat packages provided a dietary staple for Native Americans. In fact, the presence of mussels helped societies settle in some areas. It sustained the first Europeans to arrive on American shores, and later became the basis for booming maritime economies.

Today, most mussels are farm-raised in New Zealand and Canada. These cultivated delicacies spare the depletion of ancient marine ecosystems and are cleaner and healthier than their wild counterparts.

Low in fat and cholesterol, these plump, protein-rich morsels deliver a clean, sea-kissed flavor. And steaming them releases a rich liquor that readily saturates the pores of warm sliced bread. Serve with a salad and even some fries for a complete, delicious meal.

To make great mussels at home, keep the following in mind: They're still alive, and they should stay that way until cooking. Keep them cold and provide breathing space. They will keep three days in the back of the fridge or on ice. Before cooking, inspect them to make sure the shells are tightly closed. Squeeze any that opened with your fingers; if they don't close in a few seconds, discard. Scrub off any little barnacles, and remove the sinewy tufts that stick out of the shell (called the beard) with scissors.

The following recipe is adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

Moules Marinire

4 qt. fresh mussels

4 tbsp. butter

1 cup minced onion

1 large clove garlic, pured (optional)

1 large handful fresh chopped parsley

2 cups dry white wine

6- to 8-quart lidded pot

Melt butter over medium heat. Stir in onions and garlic. Cook slowly until limp.

Add parsley and mussels. Cover, shaking pot once to mix ingredients. Add wine, cover, and shake again. Steam three to four minutes without shaking, just until the mussels have opened.

Serve shells into big soup bowls. Discard any that failed to open. Carefully ladle the broth into the bowls, leaving any residual sand behind. Makes six servings.

Note: Child herself considers the above recipe one to be mastered, then embellished upon. For a Provencal variation, add some saffron to the broth and chopped tomato to the bowls. For a classic Italian dish, serve the mussels over linguine, add some heavy cream to the remaining vapor, and reduce slightly to fashion a sauce. Create an addictive Thai dish by substituting coconut milk and Thai red curry paste for the wine, and minced ginger and Kaffir lime leaves for the onion.

Pair any of the above with a bone-dry Chablis, and enjoy thoroughly.

Fresh mussels can be found at the following area markets. Call ahead to confirm availability.

Par Avion Finer

Foods Emporium,

1872 Southgate Road, 636-2328

Whole Foods Market,

7635 N. Academy Blvd., 531-9999

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