Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Salt Spring Island mussels

    I grew up near the water, the St Lawrence River however and not the ocean.  We went fishing sometimes, and caught things like perch and sunfish and the occasional Rock Bass.  The only one who ever ate anything we caught was the cat, and she insisted her fileted perch be fried in the frying pan before she ate it.  My first experience with real seafood (that I can recall) was on a family vacation to Cape Cod.  Dad brought take-out fish and chips to the cabin we had rented and Mum's was deep fried scallops.  I got to have one (I was 8).  There were other times, after that, but they were infrequent.  We ate fish, but it was from the frozen section at the grocery store.  As a teenager, I remember my step-dad going to the fishmonger at Atwater market and coming home with shrimp as big as my hand, "Scampi" he called them.  We would pull a stool over to the counter and watch him devein them (he loved them so much, I think I even saw him eat one raw!).   

   In my early 20's, my Mum, sister and I traveled to PEI for a summer vacation, a rented farmhouse on the beach on Malpeque Bay.  And (together with my aunt and three cousins) we hit a traditional maritime church lobster supper.  The kind where you pay based on the size of the lobster you would like to eat, but lobster is only part of the meal.  Long tables covered in red check tablecloths, are piled with bowls of any salad you can think of...5 different versions of the same potato salad, bean salads, green salads, carrot and raisin salad.  If the recipe is in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (the one with the same red check cover), it was on the table.  And then a table of seafood...mussels and scallops and shrimp and deep fried haddock and sole...Then your lobster...3/4 lb? 1 lb? Or 1 1/2 lb?  And when you eat that lobster, the meat inside is (believe it or not) the size of the shell you pulled it out of!  It hasn't shrunken from travelling on an airplane to get to you...It came in a cooler in the back of somebody's pick-up truck, having eaten its last meal in the ocean at breakfast time.  And then, the dessert table...loaded with pies, pies made from recipes that have never been written down because the ladies who made them learned them at the table from their grandmothers (because that is what Grandmas did, or so my Gran told me)...Blueberry, lemon meringue, chocolate cream, peach, strawberry rhubarb, each one baked in a butter/shortening crust (yes, there were probably a few with lard crusts, I'm sure).  Nothing from the bakery counter at the grocery store, nothing from the deli counter.  All of it homemade, all of it from scratch.  Real food, yum...

So, when we moved to Vancouver Island, I felt like I had arrived, as far as eating seafood was concerned.  But lobster is east coast food.  I am not going to do some poor lobster the disservice of exposing those poor dehydrated claws to the light.  All the garlic butter in the world cannot make lobster that has travelled on a plane and sat in a tank at the grocery store waiting for you to take it home,  taste like lobster that walked from the ocean to your plate.  So, I did some homework before I started cooking seafood here.  Checked out seasons, and what is available fresh (like crab and clams and mussels)...and what were the best ways to cook those things.  Crab is one of my favourites, but we try and wait until the family from the Interior is here to catch a few (of the right size!) and share some really fresh and tasty ones.  Over the years, mussels have become a favourite, mostly because of the price which is quite reasonable (right now, at Sea Drift, 5.99/lb), and because of that, I have had a good amount of practice with the recipes!  Mussel season (as with most bivalves) in any month that has an "R" in it...Why?  Because they like the cold water.  So, February (and Valentine's day!) is a great time for mussels.  The ones we get are from a farm off of Salt spring Island (an Island in the Southern Gulf Islands, that lie between Vancouver Island and the Mainland).  For serving, if you are eating just mussels (which is a lovely treat!  add a salad and some lovely baguette and you have a perfect Valentine's dinner for two...oh yes, and you may want to end the meal with some chocolate!), you will want a pound per person.  If you are serving them with pasta (like I did last night), then 1/2 a pound per person is just fine.  

Cleaning mussels involves cold water, a scrub brush (like a nail brush if you don't have a kitchen scrubber, you can always clean it with a bleach solution later, and a lot of rinsing.  If you have two sinks, fill them both with cold water, put your mussels in one.  Gently move the mussels around to allow any sand or grit that has attached itself or found its way inside the mussels to escape.  Move them to the 2nd sink, inspecting for cracks.  Any cracked or broken ones need to go in the garbage (hint: you can ask to see the bag of mussels before you purchase, and if you notice an obvious cracked one, ask them to remove it, this way the cracked ones you end up with at home are from your own handling).  Any mussels that are not closed should with a bit of encouragement.  The ones that spring open are dead and also should be tossed.  Rinse your mussels a second time and then give each shell a good scrubbing.  If you have a tween in the house (or a teen) who enjoys mussels, get them to do this chore.  If you have cleaned your mussels much ahead of your cooking time, put them in a bowl, and cover with a cold wet tea towel and put in the fridge until cooking time.  (do not put a lid on the bowl or cover with plastic as the mussels will suffocate).

My recipe for mussels with veggies and whole wheat pasta is an adaptation of a recipe from Simply Great food by Dieticians of Canada's recipe Shrimp with veggies and whole wheat pasta.

For 6 people:

4 lbs mussels, rinsed and scrubbed

1tsp olive oil + 1 tsp butter

1 small onion chopped

4 cloves garlic crushed

1 red pepper sliced

18 ounces grape tomatoes washed and halved

2 green onions, chopped

1 tsp dried oregano (or 4 tbsp chopped fresh) 

1/2 tsp each sea salt and pepper 

1 375g package whole wheat spaghetti cooked al dente

Heat oil and butter together on medium heat, in large (12 inch) skillet with a lid, add onions, garlic and peppers and cook until soft (5 minutes or so).  Add oregano salt and pepper.  Add tomatoes and continue cooking until tomatoes are very soft (about 3 minutes).  Add mussels and green onions and cook until mussels open up.  this can take anywhere from 3-6 minutes depending on the size of the mussels.  Serve spaghetti on rimmed plates and top with mussels and veggies.  Enjoy a green salad on the side.

For those of you who came looking for a lunch meal today, I apologize!  But there will be more tomorrow, and we will be looking at comparing labels on some pre-packaged lunchbox staples.

Enjoy!  See you soon!

Some nutrtional info I found at a website for healthy eating (

"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."


  1. A wonderful "spaghetti e vongole" meal, the way we ate it in Naples, Italy.
    We can harvest mussels here, with permits, right off our shores. Nothing beats the taste of fresh seafood.

  2. Thank you Rosaria. We are so fortunate to live where the seafood is so fresh.


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