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Prince Edward Island mussels with gnocchi and tomato sauce. (Credit: John Ross)

Mussels have been a nutritious source of protein for thousands of years, coming from both fresh- and saltwater sources. They are bivalve mollusks like clams and oysters and, like them, are filter feeders — feeding on plankton and other microscopic sea creatures.

Wild mussels are found clumping together on wave-washed rocks, attached to the rock by their beards (or byssus). But the vast majority of the mussels we purchase in our fish markets are farmed and come from Prince Edward Island in Canada. Hatchery-produced seed grows in a nursery until about 3 months old, then is placed in tube-like mesh material and hung on longlines or rafts for growing in natural ocean environments. The mussels are harvested in less than two years.

These PEI mussels have become a staple in restaurants and homes throughout the Northeast. Recently, however, I have found extra-large wild mussels from Cape Cod at local fish markets. They are about twice the size of farmed mussels and are especially good in a mussel stew. Here are some suggestions.

Mussel Stew with Chick Peas and Turmeric
Purchase 3 pounds of large wild mussels and rinse under cold water. Pull off the beards with your fingers and discard.

Place the mussels in a pasta pot along with 1 cup white wine, 1/2 cup minced shallots, 3 sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf. Cook at high heat, covered, until the mussels open fully, about 5 minutes. Remove the mussels with tongs and set aside to cool.

Strain the juices through a fine-mesh strainer and reserve. Remove the mussels from their shells and set aside.

Make a seasoning mix by combining 1 tablespoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper.

Cut half a head of cauliflower into florets and peel 3 sweet potatoes. Cut the sweet potatoes into 2-inch chunks.

Toss the vegetables with 2 tablespoons olive oil and about half the spice mixture. Place them on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.
Trim the leaves from a head of kale and wash in cold water.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil, add 1 tablespoon salt and cook the kale for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander, plunge into cold water and squeeze out as much moisture as possible with your hands. Chop and set aside.

Heat a dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 1 chopped onion and 6 sliced cloves of garlic along with the remainder of the spice mixture.

Drain and rinse 2 cans of chick peas and add them to the onions and garlic. Add the roasted vegetables and the blanched kale. Add 1 chopped beefsteak tomato and the mussel broth.

Stir in the reserved mussels and simmer at low heat for 20 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve with crusty French bread.

Serves 4-6.

Mussel Stew in Lemon Aioli Sauce
Purchase 3 pounds of large mussels and prepare as in the above recipe, reserving the broth and removing the mussels from their shells.

Make the lemon aioli by mincing 4 cloves of garlic very fine and adding them to the bowl of a food processor along with 1 tablespoon bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 2 egg yolks.

Process for 30 seconds, then slowly drizzle in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil while processing. Continue to add 3/4 cup olive oil, beginning with a small stream and increasing the flow as the emulsion forms.

Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a dash of cayenne pepper. The finished sauce will have the consistency of mayonnaise. Set the sauce aside.

In a separate bowl, crush 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads and mix with 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Heat a dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 2 chopped leeks (white part), 1 diced fennel bulb and 3 diced carrots. Cook at low heat for 3 minutes and add the peel from 1 orange (no white part) and 2 bay leaves.

Cut about 12 small new potatoes into slices, leaving the skin on. Add them to the stew along with the reserved mussel broth and the saffron-lemon mixture. Simmer until the potatoes are fully cooked (but still firm), then fold in the aioli sauce and the mussels.

Garnish with 1/2 cup chopped cilantro and cook at low heat until the mussels are hot, about 15 minutes.

Serve in shallow bowls with crusty bread.

Serves 4-6.

Prince Edward Island Mussels with Gnocchi and Tomato Sauce
Purchase 4 pounds of small Prince Edward Island mussels and steam them as in the above recipes, removing them from their shells and reserving the broth.
For the gnocchi, boil 2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes in their skins until fully cooked. Cool slightly, then peel off the skins and cut the potatoes into 2-inch pieces. Push them through a potato ricer into a large bowl.

After letting the potatoes cool, add 1 egg, 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1 teaspoon salt. Using your hands, knead the potato mixture into a dough.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide it into balls the size of a baseball. Roll these out into long cylinders about 1 inch thick. Cut the cylinders into 1-inch pieces.

Dust your hands in flour, then roll each piece off the end of a dinner fork to create little grooves. Place the finished gnocchi on a foil-lined sheet pan dusted with flour.

For the sauce, remove the cores from 4 large, ripe tomatoes and cut an X in the bottoms. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and put the tomatoes in the boiling water for 1 minute and remove.

When tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off the skins, cut them in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds and excess juice. Chop coarsely.

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a saucepan and add 6 thinly sliced cloves of garlic. Cook briefly and add the chopped tomatoes along with 1 teaspoon salt. Let the tomatoes simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.

Stir in 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 3/4 cup of the reserved mussel broth. Tear or chop 1 cup fresh basil and add to the sauce. Season with ground pepper.

Just before service time, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add the gnocchi to the boiling water. Gently stir them with a slotted spoon and when they rise to the surface, remove to 4 pasta bowls. (They will cook in about 5 minutes.)

Divide the mussels between the serving bowls and ladle the hot sauce over them. Grate fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over each dish and serve.

John Ross