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Flex your mussels: how to cook Australia’s most underrated seafood | Seafood

They are cheap, nutritious, sustainable and versatile. But despite their credentials, mussels are often overlooked by Australian guests. “I’m really amazed why mussels aren’t more popular and also why they’re being offered at such a low price,” says Oscar Solomon, Executive Chef at Greca and Yoko in Brisbane. “I think they’re freaking amazing.”

It’s possible to find live, Australian-farmed, ready-to-cook mussels for as little as $9 a kilo — less than half the price of free-range chicken thighs and considerably cheaper than steak. And gram for gram, mussels contain more iron than both. They are also considered a source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B2 and B12, phosphorus, selenium and iodine.

Domestic mussel consumption figures are low, but Eyre Peninsula Seafoods managing director Andrew Puglisi estimates that New Zealanders consume ten times more mussels than Australians. Europeans, meanwhile, eat two to four kilos of mussels per person every year.

But mussels might have their moment. It was a long and hard road to get there for Puglisi and his team, who are now the country’s largest producers of premium mussels.

“In the last three to four years we’ve increased our supply consistency and quality to the point where supermarkets have now put us on their shelves and mussels are starting to get a higher profile, which is encouraging as a grower,” Puglisi says.

Growing up on the family’s shrimp trawler in South Australia, he switched to tuna farming and then saw what he thought was the biggest growth opportunity in the fishing industry – mussels.

It’s getting easier to get hold of mussels as more major retailers in Australia stock them, says Sam Gordon, managing director of South Coast Mariculture, the company behind Jervis Bay Mussels. For example, Woolworths in Sydney’s Double Bay has a live mussel tank.

Stocking them is a decision that can help supermarkets step up their green credentials. “Mussels are among the most sustainable foods on earth,” says Gordon.

The Sustainable Seafood Guide, which helps consumers choose ethical seafood, rates mussels as green or a “better choice”, meaning Australians should aim to put more on their plates. Because mussels are filter feeders, healthy populations are a sign of a clean marine environment, and breeding them has little impact on surrounding ecosystems.

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So Australian mussels are cheap, sustainable and nutritious – why not eat them instead? Puglisi attributes this to the guests’ discomfort.

“Many consumers are too scared to eat or even try mussels. They’d rather just put a steak on the barbie.”

Soloman has found the same thing in restaurants. “People seem less inclined to go for something served in a shell,” he says. “I feel like there’s a physical component. Maybe it has to do with the fear of getting your hands dirty.”

But there’s a clean way to eat clams: using an empty shell as “tweezers” to separate the flesh from the remaining shells.

How to cook mussels

For many, the biggest obstacle to cooking clams is a lack of familiarity or confusion about the correct method. What do you do with live clams that are open and won’t close when tapped? Or with boiled ones that didn’t open?

A rule of thumb when using clams (that is, live clams that have been scrubbed, cleaned, and de-bearded) is to discard any broken or cracked clams. As for the rest, if they smell good and look good, they should be good to eat. The Sustainable Seafood Guide says it’s a myth that closed clams should be discarded. Closed mussels should be carefully pryed open after cooking – if they are bad, you can smell it clearly.

When it comes to cooking time, less is more as mussels shrink when they overcook. Between three and five minutes in the pan is the sweet spot for soft, juicy mussels.

If you use ready-to-pot varieties, you can have dinner for four on the table in the time it takes to cook a packet of linguine.

Just take a large pot and sauté some garlic (at least three cloves), fennel seeds and chili flakes with a drizzle of olive oil. Add a can of tomato passata and a splash of white wine. Mix it up, then stir it through your mussels — as they cook, they’ll open up and release that amazing taste of the ocean.

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The whole thing should be ready when your pasta is done cooking. If you’re concerned that the sauce will be too salty (it won’t), you can steam the mussels first and then add them to a cooked tomato sauce.

Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, parsley or dill and don’t forget to provide shells for the empty clams. Or try Solomon’s recipes below.

Oscar Solomon’s shells, two types

“Everyone loves to sauté mussels in garlic and white wine, but since I’ve been cooking Japanese food, I’ve sautéed them and then made a broth,” says Soloman. “Then you can take this any way you want: a miso soup, or use it with noodles or noodles so it thickens and emulsifies into a rich umami sauce.

“These recipes are designed so that you can buy a kilo of ready-to-pot mussels and a leek and stretch that over two dishes.”

Oscar Solomon's recipe for miso soup with clams, ginger and leeks.
It’s an all-umami showcase in Oscar Solomon’s recipe for Miso Soup with Clams, Ginger, and Leeks.

Miso soup with mussels, ginger and leeks

preparation 10 mins
Cook 15 minutes
serves 2-4

vegetable oil
2-3cm piece of ginger,
Skin removed, cut into thin slices
⅕ leek, only the white part, Julienned (Substitute scallions if leeks are not available)
500 g ready-to-pot mussels
250ml water
½ tsp instant dashi broth powder
1 tbsp red miso
20ml sake
20ml Mirin
15 ml soy sauce
(Optional)
Butter, at room temperature, for garnishing (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat a small amount of vegetable oil (enough for frying).

Gently sauté the ginger and half the leeks until soft.

Add mussels and toss once to coat the mussels. Add the water carefully, making sure the mussels are covered.

Bring to a boil, turn heat down, and simmer gently for 2 to 4 minutes, or until the mussels have opened. Remove the mussels and cool them under running water so they don’t overcook.

Simmer broth gently for another five minutes, then add dashi broth powder. Taste and add more powder if needed. Strain broth through a fine sieve to remove debris.

Using a whisk or chopsticks, add the miso, sake, and mirin to the broth until fully incorporated.

Try the soup for seasoning. Gradually add soy sauce if needed.

Return the mussels to the soup and heat gently (two to three minutes).

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Serve in a deep bowl and garnish with the remaining leeks and a small knob of butter, if you like.

Oscar Solomon's Lemon Ouzo Clams, Warrigal Greens, and Tomato Oil recipe
Try Oscar Solomon’s Lemon Ouzo Clams recipe and you’ll never miss the humble shellfish again.

Lemon Ouzo Clams, Warrigal Greens and Tomato Oil

preparation 20 minutes
Cook 25 mins
serves 3-6

olive oilsear
½ fennel bulb
thinly sliced
⅗ Leek (including the remaining white part from the miso soup recipe)
500 g ready-to-pot musselslike Kinkawooka
100ml ouzo
1 lemon
peeled, plus juice
½ bunch of thyme (about 50g)
1 tsp ground pepper berry (alternatively ½ tsp ground black pepper)
3 bay leavesfresh or dried
200ml of water
1 tbsp frozen peas
200 g Warrigal vegetables
(or substitute English spinach or peas)
soft herbs, preferably parsley or basil, Leaves picked or chopped (optional)

For the roasted tomato oil
500g very ripe tomatoes, suitable for a sauce (preferably cherry tomatoes)
3 cloves of garlic, preferably Australian, skin on
1 tsp dried isotope pepper, ground (or substitute chili powder)
300 ml olive oil

For the roasted tomato oil, preheat the oven to 120°C (110°C for a fan oven). Put the tomatoes, garlic, isocep pepper and 50 ml olive oil in a baking tray and mix. Slow roast the tomatoes for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until they bubble and soften. Set aside to cool.

In a blender, puree the roasted tomatoes with the remaining olive oil and puree on high for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth or an oil filter.

To prepare ouzo shells, place a wide-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Once the pan is warm, add olive oil (enough for frying), then fennel and leeks. Fry gently for three to five minutes.

Add the mussels to the pan, toss to combine, then turn up the heat.

Once hot, remove the pan from direct heat. Carefully pour the ouzo into the pan, being careful not to flambé the broth.

Add the lemon zest, thyme and half the pepper berry. Throw to combine.

Add bay leaves and water, making sure that at least three quarters of the mussels are covered with water, and bring to a boil. Remove mussels and hold under cold water to prevent overcooking.

Reduce the heat of the pan to a simmer and continue to simmer the broth, until reduced by a third, for five to 10 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves to serve. Return the mussels to the pan and add the peas and warrigal vegetables. Throw to combine. Taste for flavor and add remaining pepperberry and lemon juice (to taste). Drizzle with toasted tomato oil and garnish with herbs if you like.

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