- Always buy mussels as close as possible to when you'll cook them, but definitely the same day.
- Mussels should be closed the way my daughter's mouth is closed when her pediatrician wants to look in her throat -- except that mussels don't have hands they can also clamp over their faces.
- Put the closed mussels in a large pot. Throw out any that are cracked, broken or gaping wide. Set aside in a large bowl any that are open, but still questionable.
- The bag my mussels came in suggested "lightly tapping" the slightly open ones. Instead, shake and swirl the lot of them in the bowl, pretty aggressively, for about 30 seconds. A number of them will have closed up again (in fear, I'm guessing). Rinse these, then throw them into the cooking pot. The rest, throw away.
- When it comes to cleaning the little guys, there are a couple things to think about. First, even though the best mussels these days are cultivated (and not wild), they're still sandy. You can scrub them under running water, or you can fill a bowl with clean water and swirl them around in there; dump the water out and repeat one more time or until most of the grit is gone.
Also, remember mussels die in fresh water, so don't soak them to get them even cleaner. My chef friend says he'd rather cook live mussels with a bit of sand than dead ones without.
- As for the "beard," it's a little tuft of fuzzy "hair" emerging from the inside of the shell, kind of like a mollusk soul patch. Harden your heart, take a deep breath and yank it out with your fingers or a paring knife. You probably won't get every single last bit, but then these are animals of the wild (well, the farmed wild). It's all right.
- Finally, when looking to see if the mussels are done cooking, think "baby opening its mouth for milk," not "toddler eating spinach." In other words, they should be more than just a little open. They should be yawning.