Some folks drool over biceps on the beach, others salivate over bivalves - the edible kind of mussels.
Summer is the season for grilling, shucking and having New England-style clam bakes. But before digging in, let the bivalve buyer beware.
Bivalves, like mussels and clams, are so named for having a shell made of two movable valves. Mussels also have "beards" - a tangle of elastic threads that holds the shellfish to solid surfaces. They are cultivated in more than 40 countries globally, typically grown on suspended lines and are available year round, most plentifully from October to May. The three big sellers are the Blue, Mediterranean and New Zealand Green Shell varieties.
Surprisingly, commercially farmed mussels are safer than the wild ones found in the salty (and sometimes contaminated) waters of the Pacific and Atlantic - the very antithesis of most other sea creatures where farm-raised is less safe than wild-caught. This is because mussel farmers do not contaminate their shellfish with toxic feed or chemicals and keep the environment clean and healthy so these filter-feeders can thrive and won't accumulate toxins that make them unsafe for human consumption.
Clams are the clean-shaven cousins to mussels - they don't have "beards," heads or even eyes and are the favorite snack of sharks and squid. The human palate is more discriminating, enjoying the hard and soft-shell varieties, the littleneck, butter, geoducks and cockles.
Here are 10 cardinal commandments for safe bivalve eating:
- Whether buying live, fresh (shucked), frozen, cooked, smoked or canned, always buy shellfish from reputable markets.
- Clams and mussels in the shell are still alive. If the shell is gaping, immerse in fresh water. If the shell doesn't close, it is dead and inedible.
- Remove the mussel's "beard" before cooking and give all shellfish a good scrub.
- Pregnant women should never eat raw shellfish and should limit consumption of cooked ones too.
- The KidSafe Seafood program recommends farmed Blue mussels once a week for children older than three since these bivalves are low in mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
- After purchasing seafood, keep it cold. Refrigerate or freeze it immediately when you get home.
- Wrap fresh seafood in airtight containers.
- Keep live shellfish alive until you are ready to prepare. Live bivalves must be stored in well-ventilated containers.
- Do not cook or eat shellfish that died during storage. Eat fresh or live shellfish within a day of purchasing.
- Steam bivalves for 4 to 6 minutes until the shells open. Discard any unopened ones.
Mussels are usually steamed in their own shells while clams have more fun. They can be eaten raw, boiled, baked or fried depending on the species. New England and Manhattan clam chowders are regional specialties while linguini in clam sauce is an Italian staple. A Mediterranean seafood cioppino stew incorporates both mussels and clams, while a traditional Spanish paella blends treasures from the sea in a saffron-tinted rice.
Wanna be as happy as a clam? Prepare this seafood paella.
Serves 6 to 8