Smoked Mussels; the Story Behind the Flavor
These smoked mussels have become something that I am known for. I wanted to tell the story of how they came about and the process for making them.
In 2008 when we opened Julienne we were just in the middle of the last economic disaster. Not the best time to open a restaurant and as a result we were REALLY SLOW those first few months, some nights only feeding 10-15 people. But we had a small crew, cheap rent and by the skin of our teeth we were able to make it work long enough to get some press for what we were doing. Menu items like these Smoked Mussels were part of the reason why.
So, during those first few months of Julienne we had steamed mussels on the menu. Fresh mussels have a short shelf life. They should be alive when you get them but without the sea water washing over them a couple times a day they start to die. We were so slow that we couldn't go through the mussels fast enough and as such we were throwing away a lot of product. This is not how you make it in the restaurant business.
It was around that time that Anthony Bourdaine's hit show, No Reservations was super popular on TV. I have always been a big Bourdaine fan and so I would tune in every week for the new episodes. There was this one episode where he was in San Sebastian, Spain (which is one of my favorite food cities in the world!) and during that episode Tony visits a family who takes super fresh seafood products and they can them at a canning facility that they own and operate, and age the cans by preserving them in oil. This got me thinking...
When I was a kid my Dad bought into a retail fish market called The Fisherman's Market. His good friend and then partner (and one of my many, non-blood uncles) Ryan Rogers still owns it. At the Fisherman's Market we used to smoke oysters, scallops, clams & all sorts of fish. The oysters were insane though. They concentrated during the brine and smoke and we used to marinate them in teriyaki sauce. In fact, they still do them that way. SIDE NOTE: The Fisherman's Market was recently featured on Diner's, Drive In's and Dive's with Guy Fieri, which is pretty damn cool!!
So, back to the mussels. I took a combination of that Bourdaine show and the knowledge I had gained first hand from my time as a fish monger at the Fisherman's Market and we started messing around in the kitchen at Julienne.
Not only did we stop throwing away mussels, but we ended up with a new product that was so good and so unique that it became a signature thing that we did. They are damn addicting. The process is a little time consuming but it's not difficult.
Let's take a look at it!
The first thing I do is steam the mussels open. I do this with just a little water, lemon, garlic and shallots. You want to steam them completely because they need to be fully setup in order to get them out of the shell clean.
Once steamed, you take and shuck the mussels and brine them overnight in a solution of sugar, salt, water and liquid smoke. I only use liquid smoke for my smoked seafood. It smoothes out the brine and give a sense of Umami that you just can't get without it. So, I brine overnight in that solution.
The next dayI take the mussels and strain them off the brine and place them on a sheet pan and put them in the smoker on the lowest setting, which is 180 degrees. I don't have a set time on how long I smoke them for. What I used to tell my kitchen guys is that you want to smoke them until they have the color of a Florida retiree... Like 'Trumps face' level of color.. HAHAH
After they are smoked I take them and toss them with more sliced garlic, shallots and a selection of fresh herbs from Earth Trine Farms.
These things just get better as they sit as long as they are covered in oil. The oil is also great on pasta, in ceviche, drizzled on grilled toast or as a sauce for a piece of roasted white fish... don't throw the oil away!! Use it.
Smoked mussels are available weekly on my website. The best way to eat them (in my opinion) is with potato chips. I love the contrasting texture of the chips with the mussels. But I also have friends who just eat them with chopsticks. They are great in chilled soups too or just with steamed rice.
Follow this link to place your order, or give them a try for yourself. If you go to buy mussels on your own the way to tell if they are good and fresh is two fold. First they should smell pleasant, like the ocean. If they smell at all like a sludgy low tide then they aren't that fresh. Second is that they should all be closed, or close quickly if agitated. Meaning, if you have a few that are open and you shake them up, if they close up, that means they are still alive. If they remain open, they are dead and should be discarded before cooking the other ones.