Global warming is too serious for the world any longer to ignore its danger or split into opposing factions on it.
~Tony Blair

Another sad example of how humankind has altered the ocean environment — exhausting the limits of an ecosystem’s endurance. The iconic coastal California mussel may be the casualty this time.

A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that by mid-century, western coastal waters will become sufficiently acidic to hinder shell formation by mussels, oysters and corals. These waters are particularly fecund because winds that blow surface water out to sea allow water laden with nutrients to swell near the shore. This upwelling renders those waters especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Increased acidity levels develop in the waters as they absorb carbon dioxide which accelerate as trends of anthropogenic greenhouse gases continue to soar. Ocean acidification has been dubbed the osteoporosis of the seas.

What does this have to do with our cherished shellfish? As carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water, saturation levels of the mineral calcium carbonate, a critical building block for shells and skeletons, decreases. Undersaturation can reach perilous levels depriving these sea creatures of the basic component needed to develop and maintain their shells. According to these researchers (who were using optimistic models), by 2050 west coast seawater will no longer have sufficient saturation states to maintain adequate calcium carbonate levels. This places mussel populations at serious risk. This is indeed a dire finding given that mussels provide habitat, refuge, and food for some 300 other species.

A correlative finding was reached in a later study conducted at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Researchers there noted that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that climate scientists attribute to human activity have resulted in increased ocean acidification. This team focused on mussel larvae, which swim in the open ocean before settling down on the shoreline and attaching to reefs as adults. As with many other marine creatures, mussel larvae are more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Larvae were grown in the lab at present acid levels, levels projected for the end of the century if carbon dioxide emissions continue, and at levels which might be reached if emissions are reduced. The shells were measurably thinner and the mussels’ bodies smaller at projected acid levels.

Other researchers have sung the same refrain: if human actions continue unabated, oceans will continue to absorb rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide which causes ocean acidification whose corrosive effect ultimately threatens to decimate certain shellfish species.

Do we welcome such a sea change?

As always, follow the cleaning and culling ritual. Thoroughly scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of cold water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards (the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell) cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance of the cooking process or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

MUSSELS & CHORIZO

1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 lbs mussels, cleaned
1 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 t fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/2 C dry white wine
1/2 C fish stock or clam juice
2 T unsalted butter

1 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Roughly ground black pepper
Sea salt

In large, heavy Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium and add chorizo, garlic and shallots. Sauté until shallots soften and become transparent, about 4-5 minutes. Add mussels, thyme, oregano and tomatoes. Stir well.

Add wine and stock to pan. Cover, and cook over medium heat until the mussels open, about 6-8 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few minutes to reduce liquid by half. Add butter, and stir vigorously into the sauce.

Transfer mixture to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and pepper, and salt to taste. Serve with toasted or grilled slices of artisanal bread rubbed with fresh garlic cloves.

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Mussels with Fennel & Friends

September 13, 2010

Anyse maketh the breth sweter and swageth payne.
~Turner’s Herbal (1551)

(For the record, I am far from a licorice candy provocateur—whether red, black or other rainbow color or shape. My dislike for licorice candy is doubtless partly genetic and partly environmental. Yet, I have always adored the hints of anise and fennel in food. An infrequent pastis served straight up or on the rocks with a side carafe of water is rarely declined. So, to those licorice naysayers, please keep an open mind as kitchen affable anise and fennel are strikingly dissimilar to the candy species.)

Native to Egypt, anise (Pimpinella anisum) is cultivated for its carminative and aromatic seeds. Used by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C., the herb was also well known to the Greeks and Romans. The Arabic term anysum became the Greek anison and then anisun in Latin.

An annual plant, anise grows to about 1 1/2 to 2 feet high and has feathery upper leaves with clusters of dainty, creamy-white flowers. After flowering, the ribbed seeds ripen and are harvested. The cultivated seeds have a slight hint of licorice in flavor and the aroma of fennel.

Pastis, the so-called milk of Provence, is anise hooch. An ambience setting French apéritif (apéro), pastis emerged a decade or so following the absinthe debacle and the ultimate prohibition on that wormwood spirit during midstride World War I. In recent years, more complex, creative and aromatic blends of pastis have appeared on the market.

Pastis changes its appearance from dark transparent yellow to milky soft yellow and cloudy when lightly diluted with water. Cooking with pastis, whether to deglaze or braise, can be subtly radiant.

STEAMED MUSSELS WITH FENNEL & PASTIS

3 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 fennel bulb, cored, trimmed and and thinly sliced
1 T fennel seeds

1 large, ripe tomato, cored, seeded and diced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup pastis, such as Ricard or Pernod
1 cup heavy cream
1 sprig fresh tarragon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

In a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, bring to medium and add olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and sweat until for 2-3 minutes. Then, add fennel, fennel seeds, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomato, white wine, pastis, cream, tarragon sprig, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cook for about 1-2 minutes.

Finally add the mussels, and cover the pot. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and finish with chopped tarragon.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette or artisanal bread slices.

Mussels with Pesto

September 23, 2009

Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence.
~Carolus Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica (1751)

To make a long story absurdly too short, Carolus Linnaeus has often been deemed the father of taxonomy. He laid the foundations for the binomial or binary nomenclature system of naming and classifying organisms which, with modifications, is still in broad use today.

For those of you who have diligently plucked the sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) from your summer gardens and bottled fresh pesto for the winter months—or who have friends who do the same and so generously share.

MUSSELS WITH PESTO

1 C pesto (see Pasta with Pesto, 08.18.09 post)

2 1/2 lbs fresh mussels

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C shallots, peeled, and sliced
1/2 t sea salt
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 C dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Spread pesto out in a large shallow bowl.

Scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If necessary, debeard them and discard any opened mussels which fail to close when pressed together.

Sweat the olive oil, shallots, garlic and salt in a large, heavy saucepan over medium low heat until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. The shallots should be translucent. Add the wine and bring to a constant, but not raging, boil, for about 5-6 minutes. Add the mussels, cover the pan, and cook the mussels until they open, about 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Drain the mussels through a sieve, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Then transfer this strained liquid to the bowl with the pesto and stir them together. Remove the mussels from the shells and place them in the bowl with the pesto and reserved cooking liquid. Stir gently to coat and season liberally with pepper. Serve promptly with toasted or grilled bread.

Flatfish & Mussel Ceviche

August 24, 2009

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
~William Shakespeare, (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 3)

A friend just returned from Peru where she visited the mystical pre-Columbian Inca site of Machu Picchu. Our mummy bag accompanied and warmed her at night on her life journey. Machu Picchu by osmosis. Her homecoming was a shameful reminder that, to date, only one ceviche recipe appears on the site (see Ceviche: Debated Ancestry 03.27.09). Time to remedy that oversight.

FLATFISH & MUSSEL CEVICHE

1 lb white skinless fish fillets, such as flounder or sole
1 lb fresh shelled mussels, cleaned and rinsed
1 C fresh lime juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 t salt
1 plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and finely diced
2 fresh serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1 T chopped parsley
1 T chopped cilantro
1/4 C yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1/4 C red onion, peeled and finely diced

2 C corn kernels
1 lb sweet potatoes, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/2″ slices, then half disks
1-2 avocadoes, halved, peeled and sliced

Chill bowls in the freezer.

Cut the fish fillets horizontally into 2″ x 1/4″ slices. Soak the fish and mussels in lime juice for at least 2 hours. Add the salt, garlic, and chili and refrigerate for another hour before serving.

Roast the sweet potatoes in the skin until a fork pierces the meat easily, about 45 minutes in a 375 F oven. Cool, then peel, and cut into 1/4″ slices, then half disks

Just before serving, fold in the parsley, cilantro, and onion and slice the avocadoes.

Divide and mound the ceviche in the center of each bowl. Surround with fanned sweet potato and avocadoes slices topped by corn. Serve immediately.

Curried Mussels

May 5, 2009

Playwrights are like men who have been dining for a month in an Indian restaurant. After eating curry night after night, they deny the existence of asparagus.
~Peter Ustinov

CURRIED MUSSELS

2 T canola or peanut oil
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed
4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 T Thai red curry paste
1 C white wine, preferably somewhat sweet or fruity
13.5 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
1 T fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 lbs. mussels, debearded and scrubbed
4 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
4 T fresh basil, chopped

On medium high, heat the oil in a heavy Dutch oven until hot but not burning. Add the lemongrass, garlic, curry paste, white wine, coconut milk, nam pla, and lime juice and bring to a simmer, whisking until well blended. As always, do not burn the garlic. Add the mussels, cover the pot, and let steam until opened. At the end of the cooking process, finish with the cilantro and basil.

Moules Marinières

April 11, 2009

Mussels, a personal love, have been a food source for tens of thousands of years. They encapsulate the type of food that I adore: simple, savory, and without pretense.

In ancient Greece, electoral votes were cast by scratching the names of candidates inside mussel shells.

Centuries later, in one of the earliest (14th century) French cookbook transcripts, Le Viander de Taillevent, a mussel recipe appears—with mint of all things. The reknowned Taillevent rose from meager beginnings as a young kitchen hand by the common name of Guillaume Tirel to become the heralded master chef for the king of France, Charles V (“the Wise”). More than a quincentennial later, Taillevent’s name graced a famous Parisian restaurant which opened shortly after the close of World War II.

Mussels are bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live on exposed shores in intertidal zones. The external shell is composed of two hinged halves (valves) joined together by a ligament, and closed by robust internal muscles. They have tough, elastic byssal threads—their notorius “beards.”

On storage: do not bring home mussels in a closed plastic bag and directly store them in the refrigerator. In that sealed bag, they will suffocate and die. So, either put them on the refrigerator shelf with the bag open or transfer them to a large glass bowl and cover them with a damp cotton cloth.

MOULES MARINIERES

2 lbs fresh mussels

3 T unsalted butter
1/4 t sea salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3 shallots, peeled and finely minced
2 t dried thyme
2 C white wine (slightly sweet or a touch fruity)

1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 C fresh tarragon, chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

Start with butter then combine salt, garlic, shallots, thyme, and wine in large deep heavy skillet. Sweat over low heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add bay leaf and mussels with a generous sprinkling of pepper, then cover. Cook just until shells open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and sprinkle with tarragon and more pepper.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette slices and a chilled white or rosé.

Sustainable Seafood

January 31, 2009

Sorry, another screed from the bully pulpit…

Fish is a high-protein, low fat food that provides a range of health benefits. In particular, white-flesh fish is lower in fat than any other source of animal protein, and oilier fish contain substantial quantities of omega-3, or the “good” fat in the human diet. A growing body of evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids help maintain cardiovascular health by playing a role in the regulation of blood clotting and vessel constriction.

In addition, fish does not contain those “naughty” omega-6 fatty acids lurking in red meat.

Despite their nutritional value, fish can pose considerable health risks when contaminated with substances such as metals—the most commonly discussed being mercury. Once mercury enters a waterway, naturally occurring bacteria absorb it and convert it to a form called methyl mercury. Unfortunately, humans absorb methyl mercury readily and are especially vulnerable to its effects. Because the poison is odorless, colorless and accumulates in the meat of the fish, it is not easy to detect and cannot be avoided by trimming off specific parts. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals, known as congeners. Eating fish contaminated with mercury or PCBs, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system, causing serious health problems, especially for young children and pregnant women.

How do you select a fish?

Rule: Know thy local fishmonger or butcher. There is no excuse for timidity—his job (the one he is paid to do) is to serve you fresh fish, fowl and meat. Probing inquiry about his product is completely de rigeur, if not mandated; and a fishmonger or butcher who does not openly share his intimate knowledge with you is one to avoid. (I knew one.)

(1) “Flat” fish:
The shorter the “boat to plate time” the better; firm, shiny, bright colored flesh; fresh, mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent, not “fishy” or ammoniac; scales intact & even; clear, not cloudy eyes (except for deeper fish, e.g., grouper); bright pink or red gills, not slimy, dry or mucous covered; fillets & steaks should be moist and without discoloration.

(2) Shell fish (crustaceans & mollusks):
“Boat to plate time” again rules; mild, open ocean-sea breeze scent; Lobsters and crabs should be purchased live and as close to the time of cooking as possible. Both should actively move their claws; lobsters should flap their tails tightly against their chests or, when picked up, curl their tails under their shells. Shrimp should have uniform color and feel firm to the touch. Hard-shell clams, mussels, and oysters, purchased live in their shells, should have tightly closed shells or snap tightly closed when tapped. If they do not close when tapped, they are dead and should be discarded. Soft-shell clams are unable to close their shells completely. To determine if they are alive, gently touch the protruding neck of each clam to see if it will retract. If the neck does not retract slightly, discard the clam. Discard any clams, mussels, or oysters that have cracked or broken shells. Freshly shucked clams, sold in their liquor, should be plump, moist, and shiny. Freshly shucked oysters should be surrounded by a clear, slightly milky, white or light gray liquid. Freshly shucked scallops vary in color from creamy white to tan to a light pink color. Squid should have cream-colored skin with pinkish patches.

Rule: Keep in mind how the fish in our precious oceans are preciptiously vanishing…the numbers from studies are staggering. For instance, since 1950, the harvests from about one third of the world’s fisheries have collapsed to less than 10% of their historical highs. Among the culprits are overfishing, habitat damage, climate change, oxygen depletion and bycatch. So, solemnly chose a species which is relatively abundant, and whose fishing/farming methods are friendly to the seas and rivers. The fish should also be one which is commonly free of known toxins or contaminants…that is, not found in troubled waters.

Because of the number of fish involved and the ever changing populations, a well researched, almost indispensable, site which rates current seafood choices is the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch . Another equally informative site is Blue Ocean Institute, offering assessments and suggested better alternatives to fish in significant environmental danger. Both sources also offer seafood and sushi pocket guides to assure your restaurant choices include sustainable fish.

Finally, a new book entitled Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving The Oceans One Bite At A Time was released for publication last month which provides a comprehensive guide for conscientious sushi diners.