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Wednesday, January 05, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Mussels: Black jewels from the seafood treasure chest

Dishing / Kathy Casey

Enlarge this photoBARRY WONG / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Chef Don Curtiss gives mussels an Italian twist by cooking them in a spicy blend of Italian sausage, wine and tomatoes.

Mussels are plump, briny morsels of seafood goodness. These succulent mollusks are a menu staple nationwide — from brewpubs serving up bowlfuls simmered with loads of garlic and microbrews and accompanied by big chunks of artisan breads to fine-dining menus showing the bivalves as sexy appetizers, entree embellishments and black jewels poked into towering, iced-shellfish extravaganzas.

When I was growing up, mussels were considered too much trouble to harvest. Now they're very popular, and Penn Cove Shellfish has grown them in Washington since the mid-'70s. They're typically "farmed" on ropes. In 1989 the Mediterranean variety of mussel popped up on local shores. This variety was then cultivated by Taylor Shellfish Farms, and its first commercial harvests were released in the early 1990s. The difference, in my opinion, between the two varieties are that the locals, Mytilus trossulus, are a bit more briny, and the Mediterraneans, Mytilus galloprovincialis, are fatter and a bit sweeter. Mussels are available year round, with the locals at their peak in winter and the Mediterraneans in summer.

Mussels need to be debearded (the fuzzy part that attaches them to rocks, etc., pulled off), rinsed and scrubbed clean. A popular feature of cooking mussels is that they are fast, fast, fast. They should be cooked only until their shells pop open and the meat is just plumped. (If a mussel does not open during cooking, it should be thrown out.) If overcooked, they will be tough. Cooked mussel meats range in color from pale cream to bright orange.

A big bowl of steamed shellfish makes a great starter for a group participatory meal that's entertaining to eat. When eating mussels, it's fun to use an empty hinged shell as a natural utensil to pick the mussel meat up and pop it into your mouth. But if you have major shellfish lovers there, you've got to be quick! Be sure to put out plenty of bowls for collecting the empty shells.

In the Northwest, mussels are enjoyed simply steamed with white wine, butter and garlic, but one of my favorite preparations using a steam-cooking method is the Italian twist chef Don Curtiss gives the mussels.

Don first browns full-flavored Italian sausage in a little olive oil; then he adds garlic, red chili flakes, white wine and pureed tomatoes, making for a really big-flavored, rustic and robust dish.

Mussels also can be luscious and beautiful components to dishes — adding their unique flavor and appearance. Take for instance traditional paella, the Spanish seafood and rice dish. I've incorporated mussels into a Pacific Rim-style seafood stew with coconut milk and ginger; the addition of bok choy and carrots contributes excellent texture and color. This fragrantly flavored stew is wonderful served up over big bowls of steamed jasmine rice.

One of our tasters for this month's recipes, when tasting the Pan-roasted Halibut with Mussel Vinaigrette, exclaimed, "I feel like I've died and gone to a restaurant!" This easy, sophisticated dish is perfect to make at home for a dinner party. The vinaigrette can be made in advance, so all you have to do is cook the halibut at the last minute.

And last but not least, mussels are always tasty in pasta. My recipe for Roasted Mussels with Pasta and Spicy Lemon Rosemary Butter is quite eye-catching and is also very easy.

You can assemble your whole pan of mussels and seasonings and have it ready to go. When ready to cook, just roast the mussels while cooking off your pasta. When the pan comes out of the oven, toss the mussels with the hot pasta, and presto!, you have delicious fare.

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Chef Kathy Casey is a food, beverage and restaurant concept consultant and freelance food writer. She owns Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle. E-mail: info@kathycasey.com Her Dishing column appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Seattle Times Food section.

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