Perhaps it is the dark shell that accounts for its foreboding reputation. Perhaps it is the name, which makes it sound too much like a stringy, tough muscle. Whatever the case, mussels do not have the audience in the United States that other forms of seafood do, even though people throughout the world have been eating them for more than 20,000 years.

Although there are dozens of mussel species, only two reach American markets with any regularity. The blue mussel (which is actually dark blue to black) and the blue-green mussel can be used in recipes interchangeably, but the blue-green type from New Zealand is larger and more expensive. The blue mussel is most abundant, found along the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts. It is usually 2 to 3 inches in length.

Many mussels are being cultivated instead of harvested because of the dangers posed by microscopic organisms (of red tide notoriety) that make mussels unsafe to eat during the spring and summer months.

When choosing mussels, make sure they are still alive by tapping on their shells. If they slam shut, they are still alive. Those with tightly closed shells also are a good choice. In general, smaller mussels are more tender. Cultivated mussels are usually smaller, and they also lack some of the sand and grit of harvested mussels. Choose shucked mussels that are plump and have a clear liquor (liquid). Or, opt for plain and smoked mussels packed in oil.

Store live mussels in a single layer on a tray in the refrigerator covered only with a damp towel or wet newspapers for up to 2 days. Store shucked mussels in the refrigerator up to 3 days. They should be covered completely with their liquor (liquid). If you need more liquor, combine 1 cup water with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pour this brine over the mussels to cover.

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