Mussels – people love ‘em or they hate ‘em. In my experience, there’s a direct correlation between the two previously mentioned groups and people who grew up near the ocean and people who didn’t. Mussels don’t last. They don’t freeze beautifully. They look seriously weird before they are cleaned. But there is nothing quite as good as a good plate of mussels.
They’re almost exclusively open-water farmed (totally sustainable) and one of the best bangs for your seafood buck – just make sure they’re not/haven’t been frozen. Usually they come fresh on ice in plastic mesh bags, sometimes cleaned, sometimes not. In some supermarkets in Italy they have this crazy machine that scrapes them clean (more on this later). In Germany we usually see them refrigerated vacuum-sealed in inert gas. Apparently, they stay in a kind of suspended animation. To be honest a) the whole idea creeps me out and b) the ones we get here tend to be huge and I prefer them small, so I usually wait until I see them fresh (normally when I’m in Italy or the US).
If I can, I smell the bag – they should smell briney but not strongly fishy (this indicates a bunch of them are dead). Don’t let the fishmonger/deli worker/whatever wrap them tightly in plastic. All living mollusks need air to survive – a plastic bag with some ice on the bottom and the mussels on top is fine, just don’t tie up the bag (and make sure they are not charging you for the ice when paying by weight!).
Once you’ve got your mussels home, dump them out in a bowl. Some will be broken (especially if they’ve been through the Italian scraping machine). Throw those away, because there’s no way to tell if they are dead, and you don’t want to go around eating dead mussels. Next, look for any that are open. Give them a squeeze and set them aside. They should close. When you’re done sorting them, throw away any that haven’t closed within a minute or so of being squeezed (the previous advice does not apply to inert-gas packed mussels, another reason I don’t like cooking with them!). Once you’ve eliminated any dearly departed mussels, you can move on to cleaning the survivors.
All mussels have a beard – a little man-bun of aquatic plant stuck half in and half out of the mussel. This is how it clings to whatever it was clinging to when it lived in the water (usually a purpose-built pole on a mussel farm, but possibly a rock or even a boat). Grasp the beard firmly as close to the mussel as possible and pull carefully and directly away from the mussel (in “first gear” if you know what I mean). It should come away completely; if it doesn’t, try grasping what’s left with a tweezer or pliers. If a little bit remains, no one’s gonna die.
Mussels often come out of the water with a few barnacles attached – little white friends tagging along that need to be gotten rid of. Some recipes say to scrape them off with a knife. This is both an excellent way to ruin a knife, and to lose a finger (points for efficiency). While scraping barnacles off mussels is no one’s favorite job, it’s much easier when armed with a simple but specific too: a pot scrubber. Not old-fashioned steel wool, but a modern loopy metal pot scrubber, ideally one you haven’t used before.
Have I ever used a scrubber to clean mussels that I previously cleaned pots with? Under the advice of counsel, I decline to answer based on my fifth amendment right not to incriminate myself.
Once your living mussels are beard- and barnacle-free, give them a good wash. Mussels do NOT need to be soaked. Now you’re ready to cook!
Most mussel recipes (certainly Sicilian ones) start out the same: heat some olive oil over medium heat in a broad pan, then add some parsley (I often use the stems*) and a clove or two of garlic. Once the pan has warmed up, add the mussels (with no liquid except whatever water is clinging to the mussels from washing) and cover tightly. After a few minutes they’ll start opening up. If I’m cooking them just to eat them as they are I’ll wait until they’re all open. If I’m going to cook them again in a sauce, I obsessively remove the mussels as they open and set them aside to avoid any danger of overcooking (a step most people ignore, and I find hard to defend, but that’s how I do it).
NB: if any mussels do not open, they just need more time in the pan. Unlike clams, I’ve never found a mud-filled or otherwise empty mussel.
*Why the stems? 1) The stems of parsley have as much flavor as the leaves but normally get thrown away, because they are not as nice to eat. Why waste that flavor when you can use the stems in an application where they can give up their flavor and then be discarded? 2) Parsley changes color when it cooks. When you add chopped parsley to a dish at the beginning (when building a flavor base), if you add parsley at the end (for freshness and/or color) the two different greens don’t look very nice together. Using the stems at the beginning and discarding them before adding chopped parsley solves this problem.
The Sicilian word for mussel is cozzula, usually plural cozzuli [KAWTZ-tzoo-lee]. You see it occasionally on hipster and/or old-fashioned restaurant menus but when I hear people speaking Sicilian they usually use the Italian word cozze, sometimes with the initial c dropped. In the market I’ve certainly heard the abbaniatori (market sellers) scream ‘ooooooooozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzze, bidde ‘ozze!!!
There’s no single canonical mussel recipe. The featured pasta dish and the bonus recipes that follow have as many variations as cooks and as those cooks have moods. Some people always make them jancu, white, without tomato, some swear by rossu. Some people will vary with the season, making the red version only when fresh tomatoes are available. In the photo here I used canned tomatoes to make a saucy condiment, but I’m just as likely to use small tomatoes or fresh tomato flesh (skins, seeds & juices removed) to make a red-speckled condiment rather than one that’s truly a tomato sauce.
I want to quickly note what is not in this dish: strong herbs, wine, an injudicious use of garlic, hot pepper. I understand how some Italian & Sicilian recipes came to evolve in the diaspora because of different (some would say lesser) raw materials available, but aside from the issues of freshness & size, a mussel is a mussel. Let’s taste those mussels!
Drinking: Often overlooked as a dry wine, zibibbo (tzih-BEEB-boh) is the Sicilian name of a white grape called Moscato d’Alessandria in other places. The famous sweet wine Passito di Pantelleria is made from zibibbo grapes that have partially dried on mats in the sun, making a concentrated, elegant wine to drink at the end of a meal. But the same grapes can be vinified in a dry style, making a light, floral wine with a complex aroma and balanced mineral taste.
Cantina Fina, in Marsala, make a lovely dry zibibbo called Taif. Ta’if is the ancient Arabic term for a region that produces excellent raw materials, like the city with the same name in Saudi Arabia. Some dry zibibbo suffer from a lack of structure, but Taif is a modern classic: orange blossom, tangerine & wild sage on the nose and reflected in the taste, against a seawater background. It’s a perfect foil for nearly any seafood dish, uplifting lighter fish & shellfish, and balancing “blue,” or dark-fleshed fishes.
Pasta with mussels & tomato | Pasta ca cozzuli in rossu
For the mussels
- 2-2.25 lbs mussels 1 kg
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 10 parsley stems
- 2 cloves garlic
For the sauce & dish
- 14 oz canned or fresh small tomatoes 400g
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for serving
- 1 clove garlic
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lb spaghetti, spaghettoni, bavette (linguine) or spaghetti quadrati (chitarra or square spaghetti) 450-500g
Prepare the mussels:
Clean the mussels by removing the beards and barnacles as described in the introduction. Rinse them thoroughly under running water.
Crush the garlic cloves lightly but leave them in their papery skin
Set a 30cm/12” wide deep saute pan or wide pot over medium-high heat; add the olive oil, parsley stems and garlic cloves.
When the parsley and garlic just begin to be surrounded by sizzling bubbles, add the mussels, with just the water left clinging to them from washing. Cover the pan.
After two minutes or so, check the mussels: they should be opening. If not all the mussels are open within four or five minutes total, take out the ones that are open and add them to a bowl while waiting for the others to open. Keep the pan covered in between checking & removing the mussels.
When all the mussels have opened, remove the pan from heat. Prop the pan up at an angle and pick the mussels out into a bowl. Pour the juices into a separate bowl, being careful not to let out any sand you’ve trapped in the corner of the pan (which is why you propped it up – smart right??). If you’re worried about this, you can strain the juices through a moistened paper towel. Discard the garlic and parsley stems. See notes at the end for two bonus recipes that pick up from the end of this step.
Remove the mussel meat from the shells except for two or three per serving that you’ll use for decoration. Add the shelled and whole mussels to the bowl with the juices to keep them moist.
Prepare the tomatoes
If using canned tomatoes, drain the juice away and save it for another use (I add ice, lemon and sparkling water to it and drink it – I have heard some people add vodka 🙂 ). Then, you can crush them with your hand, chop them with a knife, run them through a food mill, or, what I usually do, leave them in the can after draining and run a stick blender down the height of the can one time (this leaves quite a bit of texture). Each will give you a slightly different effect. I do not recommend using passata (tomato puree) unless it’s homemade. The texture of most commercial passata is too liquid and it rarely has as good a taste as whole peeled tomatoes, even from the same brand.
If using small fresh tomatoes, cut them in half or quarters depending on your taste and their size. If they are watery, you can pick out the seeds and water with your pinky (try not to squeeze them)
Make the sauce
Put 6 quarts or liters of water in a large pot over high heat.
Crush the garlic clove lightly and remove the skin. You can leave it whole or cut it in two, depending on how much garlic taste you want. I don’t recommend chopping the garlic for this dish and I recommend never slicing garlic ever because eating garlic slices is disgusting.
Wipe out the skillet from the mussels with a wet paper towel. Add the oil and garlic and place the skillet over medium heat.
When the garlic has just begun to change color (from its natural ivory color to the palest gold and absolutely no darker), add the tomatoes, being careful not to splash yourself. Add just a modest pinch of salt (the mussel juice you’ll add later is very salty). Give the sauce a stir and adjust the heat to a gentle bubble. Cover with a splatter screen if you have one.
Keep an eye on the sauce, stirring from time to time, until the sauce has darkened and condensed, or if using cherry tomatoes, until they’ve begun to break down and lost their raw taste. 8-15 minutes, canned tomatoes taking longer than cherry tomatoes.
Stir in most of the mussel juice and cook for a minute or two to blend. Turn off the heat.
Finish the dish
If you like to eat on warm plates, put your serving plates in a very low oven (50C / 150F)
When the water is at a full rolling boil, add a scant handful (let’s say two heaping tablespoons) of sea salt.
Note the cooking time on the pasta package, subtract four minutes and set a timer.
Add the pasta. DO NOT BREAK THE PASTA IN HALF. Stir the strands until they are completely submerged. Continue stirring often so the pasta does not stick to the bottom. This becomes less important the closer the pasta is to being done.
Meanwhile, reheat the sauce over medium-low heat.
When the timer goes off, add the mussels and any remaining liquid to the sauce and raise the heat so the sauce bubbles at a lively simmer.
Taste the pasta. Don’t throw it at the wall or any other ridiculous ritual. Taste it. If you feel like it’s just on the cusp of being done, but it’s not quite ready, drain it. You can use tongs to pick the pasta out of the water and drop it right into the bubbling sauce, or drain the pasta in a colander in the sink and then add it to the pan with the sauce. Don’t worry about getting the pasta overly dry. If you use the colander, keep a mugful of the cooking water off to the side before draining.
Vigorously toss the pasta with the sauce over heat for several minutes until the pasta is done to your liking. It should have a firm center when you bite into it but it should not have any crunch. It should be pleasurable to chew, neither overly resistant nor too yielding. If by the time the pasta is done the sauce seems a bit too dry, splash some pasta cooking water into the pan a spoonful or two at a time to get the sauce to the consistency you like. It should not be soupy.
Remove the pan from the heat. Empty the pan into a warm serving platter, or scoop and twirl individual portions onto individual plates or bowls, with two or three whole mussels in the shell going on top of each portion.
Whether over the whole serving platter or each plate, drizzle over fresh extra virgin olive oil and grind abundant black pepper.
Bonus recipe: ‘nzuppa ri cozzuli (Italian cognate: zuppa di cozze) or simply mussel soup: to serve them as they are at the end of step 6, combine the mussels & their juice in a warm serving platter or individual bowls. You could optionally season the juices before or after cooking the mussels with chopped parsley, and/or chopped fresh tomato or a spoonful of tomato sauce or (good if not very Sicilian) grated lemon peel.
Bonus recipe #2: If you add abundant freshly ground pepper to the preceding dish, you have pipata ri cozzuli (impepato di cozze) – or an “in-peppering” of mussels.
As a main course, figure on 1.5 pounds / 700-800g of mussels per person, or half that for an antipasto. In either case, abundant crusty bread is a must – if it’s semolina bread with sesame seeds, so much the better.