As a university in student in Halifax, it was a Friday night ritual to skip dinner in the cafeteria and head downtown. Pubs in Halifax attracted the student crowd by serving low-cost food to go along with regular-cost beverages.
I grew up in Ontario; while we sometimes had fresh lake fish for a meal at home, my only exposure to seafood before moving to Eastern Canada had been precooked shrimp rings served with cocktail sauce.
But in Halifax, the Maritime-born pub-going students would order up plates of steamed mussels, usually served with a wedge of lemon and some melted butter for dipping. When in Rome, I thought, and ordered a portion for myself which, if memory serves me correctly, was sold then for $2.99.
While I took to seafood like a duck to water, some other ocean catches, such as lobster and oyster, were too expensive for a student budget; sushi had not yet become the every-city phenomenon it is now in Canada. So every week or two during my Halifax years, usually at Maxwell’s Plum, dinner would be a big bowl of P.E.I. mussels.
Mussels are Canada’s “top shellfish aquaculture product, produced in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec,” says Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Mussels, in other words, are mostly farmed, with 80 per cent of the 25,000 tonnes of mussels cultivated annually centred in Prince Edward Island and this industry generated a “farm-gate value” of $45 million annually, on average, from 2011 to 2015.
When I moved back to Ontario, mussels weren’t readily available in supermarkets as they are now. Also, I had no idea how to prepare them. A cooking class with Chris Squire, who then operated a restaurant called Le Petit Prince in London, Ontario, solved the mystery.
Mussels, it turns out, are one of those ridiculously easy-peasy things to cook. To this day, I chortle at the elaborate Sirachi-Cream-Okra mussels you see in some restaurants. Mussels, prepared well, retain a bit of briny taste of an ocean breeze, if that makes sense. They don’t need to be masked by a lot of spice and frill.
The only time-consuming part of preparing mussels is cleaning and inspecting them, first. Mussels, properly bivalve molluscs, need to be cooked from fresh — i.e., live. When you buy a bag of mussels, normally you take it home on ice and keep it in the fridge until it’s time to cook. You take each shell, rinse, and pull away any “beard”, a scratchy, hairy-like bit that can protrude from one end of the shell. If a shell is open, you need to rap on it; Chef Squire taught us: if it closes, the mussel is safe to cook but if it does not close, throw it out.
Mussels should be steamed, not boiled: put a half-inch of liquid in the bottom of a large pot: white wine works well, although a vegetable or fish broth would be good, too. Finely chop some fresh green herbs, chives, and some finely diced vegetable (a bit of tomato or onion or red pepper, perhaps) and add to the liquid. Set the mussels in the pot (they do not need to be covered by the liquid), put the lid on, turn on the heat until the liquid reaches a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Check frequently. As soon as the shells open (it doesn’t take long, maybe as quickly as three minutes), the mussels are ready to eat.
Transfer mussels to individual serving bowls and spoon some of the liquid to each bowl: the mussels flavour the wine or broth. Some crusty bread to sop up the delicious liquid is a good idea.
I checked online to see if Maxwell’s Plum was still in operation in Halifax’s downtown and, indeed it is. As a bonus, I discovered they have a Sunday special: from 2 p.m. onward, with a beverage, you can get a plate of P.E.I. steamed mussels for $2.99.
Main photo: Taken at Maxwell’s Plum in 2014 by Kelley Teahen