Guide to mussels including nutritional value and choosing, buying & storing mussels.

Guide to mussels
As with the majority of shellfish, mussels are extremely versatile and very simple to prepare, if you know how.

Known as "the poor man's oyster", mussels are immensely popular in Europe, particularly in Spain and France and are now gaining popularity in the US.

Mussels can be added to seafood soups or stews, rice dishes or are simply delicious steamed in white wine, garlic and parsley. In addition, mussels are an excellent source of protein, they are low in calories and fat, they contain a number of vitamins and minerals and are easily digested, not to mention they are highly inexpensive and good value for money.

Description of the mussel

Mussels are bivalve mollusc filter feeders. This means that they have two identical shells that cover and protect them and they feed by consuming plankton and other microscopic organisms from the huge amounts of water that they filter every day (10 - 20 gallons).

Due to the way that mussels feed, it is vital that the mussel population is not depleted from our rivers or streams, as without them our waters would not be as clean.

The most popular mussels on the market are the blue mussel and the green-lipped mussel.

Blue mussels can be found in cold and warm waters all over the world, however many of them are found along the northern Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Almost 300 different species can be found in the waters of the east coast of North America alone; although very few of them are edible.

Green-lipped mussels are native to the waters of New Zealand and surrounding areas and the majority of this type of mussel is produced in New Zealand.

The protecting shells of the blue mussel are smooth, glossy and dark blue or navy in colour, whilst the juicy meat contained within may range from a bright orange to a pale cream.

The difference in colour of the meat has nothing to do with a difference in taste, although some do say that the orange meat is fleshier and tastier.

The orange meat is found in the shell of a mature female mussel, whilst the pale cream meat mussels are males or immature females.

Mussels can grow in the wild or as is most popular nowadays, due to a huge demand and consumption, they can also be cultured or farmed. If you buy mussels from fish markets or supermarkets, they will most probably come from aquaculture farms and in Europe it is virtually impossible to get hold of wild mussels.

Sticking out from between the two shells is a mass of tough brown fibres, commonly known as "the beard". The mussel uses the beard to cling and attach itself to rocks or other objects in the water and then it stays in that position whilst it grows and until it is ready to be harvested for consumption.

Nutritional value of mussels

Mussels are a wonderful food with a delicate taste that are high in protein and low in cholesterol and fat.

A 3 oz (85 g) portion of cooked blue mussels contains 20g of protein and only 147 calories. It is rich in iron, manganese, phosphorous, selenium, zinc and vitamins C and B12.

Mussels are low in fat, only containing 0,7g of saturated fat in a 3oz portion. They are, however an extremely rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish and other foods but are not produced by the body. The consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids help prevent cardiovascular and heart disease and is an important part of a healthy diet, promoting a healthy brain as well as a healthy body. Mussels in fact contain higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than any other shellfish.

Choosing and buying mussels

Mussels should always be cooked live, which means that they must also be bought live.

When buying mussels you shouldn't have too many problems. Check that the shell is moist and shiny and that they smell of the sea.

Cultured mussels will have the beards already removed, whilst wild mussels will most likely still have the beard attached.

The beard will have to be removed at home before cooking.

The most important thing to check when buying mussels is that the shells are tightly closed or that they snap shut when tapped with your finger.

This means that the mussels are alive and are edible. If the shells are open and do not close, do not buy them.

Also try to avoid shells that are broken and mussels that seem too heavy or too light.

If when you get home, you notice any open mussels that do not close, it is best to pick them out and discard them immediately.

Storing mussels at home

As with all seafood, mussels are best cooked and eaten as soon as possible after purchase.

However, mussels will keep for 48 - 72 hours if they are stored properly.

At home, rinse the mussels in cold water just to freshen them up slightly and place them in a bowl or on a tray. Do not place them in water under any circumstances, as this will kill them, as will storing them in an airtight container or plastic bag.

Place the mussels in a bowl and cover them with a damp towel or damp kitchen towels and then immediately put them in the refrigerator.

They should be kept at a temperature of between 35°F - 40°F, so situate them in the coldest part of your fridge, if possible.

Mussels should never ever be frozen when they are still alive, although it is perfectly safe to freeze the mussel meat once it has been cooked.

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