Have you ever seen a mussel chowder recipe on a restaurant menu? I sure haven’t. Chefs have to make things that sell so I’m guessing the overwhelming popularity of New England clam chowder keeps mussel chowder off menus.
But mussel chowder can be just as easy to make and just as flavorful!
In fact, mussels are sometimes better suited to chowder than clams, especially those recipes that use canned clams. Which is only like the overwhelming majority of clam chowders. Canned clams easily turn chewy and tough in chowder recipes.
Furthermore, unlike clam chowder, mussel chowder hasn’t been standardized so you probably don’t have a pre-conceived expectation of exactly what it should taste like.
And that means you can try different ingredients and be creative.
Its subtle anise flavor will add a dimension to mussel chowder that is unlike anything you’ll find in more typical clam chowders.
If you love chowder, this mussel chowder recipe, as well as 17 more chowder recipes are featured in my cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea.
It also includes recipes for bisques, boils, stews, and medleys as well as information on how to source good quality seafood and support local fishermen.
From Rhode Island to Maine—Get 80 locally inspired recipes that honor the traditions of America’s northeast.
I don’t know about you but when I was growing up my mother never once used fennel in any dish. So let me just mention a few things about it. Technically it’s an herb but the large white bulb is used more like a vegetable.
To prepare the fennel, chop off the stems where they meet the bulb. Save the stems for use in your broths. And save some of the feathery fronds which can be chopped and used as a garnish.
Once you have just the bulb, core it like so…
Then just dice the bulb into small pieces, just like you’d chop an onion.
Most chowder recipes today use bacon instead of salt pork. Prior to refrigeration technology, many foods were salted as a preservative. Salt cod is a good example. And even pork. Original chowder recipes always used salt pork prior to the 20th century.
Salt pork is fattier and saltier than bacon but it’s typically not as strongly flavored. Sometimes bacon’s smoky flavor can compete with other ingredients.
Because this mussel chowder recipe is not as briny and intense as clam chowder (at least when you make it with actual real quahogs and not canned clams), I think salt pork is a slightly better choice.
Salt pork is not always readily available in supermarkets so if you can’t find it, it’s not like bacon will ruin your chowder. But if you’re using bacon, try to find or use fattier pieces. Slab bacon, as opposed to bacon strips, would be a good choice.
Here’s the brand of salt pork I found in my local health food store…
Here’s what it looks like removed from the package. Notice those nice fatty streaks…
To prepare the salt pork for the chowder, simply chop it into half-inch cubes.
In this recipe, I highly recommend choosing Atlantic blue mussels. They are awesome for so many reasons. First, whether they’re wild or farmed, they’re always sustainable.
Unlike farmed fish, which come with a litany of problems, farmed shellfish, such as mussels, oysters, and clams, only come with benefits. They require no antibiotics. Nor do they require artificial feed or any feed for that matter. Their diet is plankton from the seawater that they filter. And because they’re filter feeders, they help to improve the quality of our coastal waterways.
Another benefit when they’re farmed is that they come pre-cleaned to markets. A simple soak and rinse are all that’s required.
Finally, try to buy mussels that are as local as possible. Many seafood markets only carry Prince Edward Island (PEI) mussels which tend to dominate the marketplace. There’s nothing wrong with PEI mussels, which are Atlantic blue mussels, but we have wonderful blue mussels here in the United States too!
Our local fishermen and shellfishermen struggle mightily to compete with the global seafood trade. Contrary to popular belief, American seafood is incredibly well-managed and sustainable. We should support that!
Always choose American seafood first over other options, including, of course, mussels.
Mussel broth is not nearly as salty as clams. Furthermore, mussels have a more mild, herbaceous flavor than clams. Fennel too has a subtle anise character.
For this reason, a thickener, like a roux, can easily obscure these more delicate ingredients and flavors.
For this recipe, you’ll need four pounds of mussels. That may sound like a lot but by the time you steam them and discard the shells, that will leave you with about 2-3 cups worth of mussel meat, which will give you enough for a serving size of 6 people.
Rinse the mussels under cold water to remove any dirt or sand on the exterior of the shell. Discard any ones with broken shells or that are already open. Some may be just slightly open. Press them closed.
If they stay closed, they’re fine. If they don’t, discard them. Remove any beards (the stringy thing sticking out of the side of the shell) by pinching them and pulling them down towards the hinge of the shell.
For clarity, here’s a mussel with a beard…
I wonder if female mussels find them sexy.
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in an 8 or 12-quart stockpot. Add the mussels, cover them, and steam them for about 2-3 minutes. The shells should start opening, like so…
Thank god for pictures showing the obvious.
Open the lid and stir them around and then put the lid back on and steam for another 2 minutes until all the mussels open.
Mussels hold seawater inside their shells so when the shells open they’ll release that into your 2 cups of water and make a beautiful salty mussel broth. This is the exact same way a clam broth is made! They’re the simplest seafood broths to make and yet, the tastiest (at least in my opinion).
Next, strain the broth with a fine-mesh strainer (or layer a regular strainer with fine-mesh cheesecloth). You’ll get about 1 quart of mussel broth. Set the broth aside. Remove the mussel meat from the shells and set them aside too.
Look at those beautiful whole mussels! Imagine a spoonful of those babies surrounded by a rich, creamy broth with chunks of potatoes and onions.
If you’re not going to make your chowder right away, put both the mussels and the mussel broth (after it chills for about 30 minutes at room temperature) in the fridge.
Steaming the mussels and making the broth is the most time-consuming step by far. Whenever you’re ready, the rest of the mussel chowder comes together pretty quickly and easily.
In a medium-sized stockpot heat the salt pork over low heat. Cook until the fat renders a few tablespoons. Turn the heat up to medium heat and brown the salt pork for a few more minutes. Be careful not to burn it! Once browned, remove the salt pork but leave the fat.
Follow the exact same process if you’re choosing bacon instead of salt pork.
Reserve the browned salt pork cracklings for an optional addition to your mussel chowder. They can be added just like bacon bits! This is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. To make the cracklings extra crispy, once cooled, chop the cubes into smaller pieces. Add them to an oven-proof baking dish and bake at 350 until crispy.
Raise the heat to medium heat. Add the onions, fennel, red pepper, and fennel seeds. Add the butter, for additional cooking fat, if needed. Saute for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until the veggies soften.
And now raise the heat to high and bring everything to a boil.
Add the potatoes, cover the pot, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through.
Start with 1 cup of heavy cream, stir, and taste. Add up to 1 more cup of heavy cream to desired taste.
Heavy cream is the best choice for chowder recipes.
You might be wondering if it’s OK to use whole milk instead of heavy cream. I would not recommend whole milk. The fat content of whole milk is too thin for chowder. Half and half is a better choice but heavy cream is really the best. If you’re concerned about this recipe being unhealthy, please check out Is Clam Chowder Unhealthy?
Stir the mussel meats into the chowder. Season with salt, if necessary. Be careful with salting. The mussel chowder should have an inherent natural saltiness.
Ladle into individual bowls and season to taste with optional seasonings such as freshly ground black pepper, fennel fronds, basil, parsley, and salt pork cracklings!
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.