Mussels have to be one of the best elements in so many cuisines that appreciate delicate and sweet tastes Mussels and spaghetti are essential to the Italian American Kitchen. Beyond the Italian American Kitchen, numerous Asian recipes feature mussels in soups and curries.The Belgians cook them in beer and butter and the Italians serve them in two of the recipes that I'm suggesting here. Of course, mussels can also be baked, broiled or grilled. The only way I have never seen mussels, unlike other shellfish, is raw.
There are too many people who are afraid to even try mussels. Sometimes I think it has to do with the sound of the word: like people who won't eat squash or eggplant because they mistrust the sound of it. If you are among these folks, you need to break out of your shell and steam open some mussels.Give them a chance to show you just how good, and economical, and nutritious they are.
Finding the best mussels.
Finding good mussels can be a trick. When I was a kid, we had them fresh from the ocean pier in front of the house. It was my father's Italian uncle who taught us how to gather mussels in their natural state. We all called him "Zimmaneel." (I'll get to his strange name in a minute. Anyway, Zimmaneel would take us out at low tide to the fishing pier in front of our house. There on the pilings, attached in great black and shining clumps were the thickly encrusted mussels. He showed us how to pluck them from the wooden pilings, knock off the barnacles with the edge of sharp shell and store them in our little tin beach buckets. With our buckets full, we brought the mussels in to the kitchen for dinner.
I do have to say that there were some hazards connected to gathering wild mussels. First there was the incoming tide. If we didn't get our catch before the tides returned, we risked being knocked against the pilings by the encroaching waves. While we were too small to stand up against the tide and had to run back to the beach, Zimmaneel would hug one arm tight around the piling. and with the other free hand pluck the mussels from the tangled blue black clusters. He held his ground not only against the oncoming rush of waves but against the lifeguard's whistle calling him in. But he was Italian and it was an American whistle, so he probably didn't understand.
The other hazard we really never realized. It was chemical. Back in the 50's the ocean water was often layered in black petroleum tar that coated the tide line. In those days it was common for oil tankers to dump off excess before entering the Delaware River at Cape May as they made their way to the Philadelphia refineries. It was a common event to go home from the beach with soles of our feet covered in black tar. If all that black tar was what stuck to our feet what went unseen into the mussels? Those days of environmental ignorance are gone. Unfortunately, so are the mussels.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about Zimmaneel and his name. Zimmaneel was my father's uncle. He was born in Italy, south of Naples, in Torre Annunziata, the town known as the capital of artisanal pasta. He was a short man but every inch of his stubby body was tough muscle and sinew. He didn't swim in the ocean he attacked and wrestled it: waves, tides and currents. His little hands were like grasping vices that clutched his prey and delivered it to almost simian jaws where breads, and pastas, and fish and foods met their end to his great delight. The execution of his victuals was followed by the graceful arc of his arm drawing his small glass of red wine to his lips and taking delicate sips.
When Zimmaneel visited he always arrived at our door provisioned with his gift of an entire grocery bag of sweet oranges: our pleasure of many days thereafter. At dinner he sat at the head of the table. But when dinner was over he would disperse the women from the kitchen and it was he who would not only do all the dishes, but he would take the SOS steal wool to completely scour every pot until they stood on the sink like a cache of stolen silver vessels.
When Zimmaneel talked he spoke only Italian, even after living in America for most of his life. Much later, after he had passed away, I discovered the mystery of his name. As a student in Italy, I quickly learned Italian. With my new found knowledge of Italian I realized that "Zimmaneel" was really not my father's uncle's name. In fact, it wasn't a real name at all. As with so many other Italian American words, Zimmaneel was a word created by my father's non-Italian speaking generation. "Zimmaneel" was not even an actual word. It was a linguistic smash up, a shmushed corruption of two words and a suffix that confusedly entered the ears of my father's Americanized generation and exited as a childish reconstruction of what they thought they heard.
I came to realize that my great uncle's name was actually Mario. The name "Mario" became all but obliterated with only the initial "ma" sound remaining. The first part of Zimmaneel, the "z" part, was all that was left of the Italian word for uncle, "zio." The ending of Zimmaneel, the "eel" was a suffix. In Italian, the ending "-ile" is a diminutive. When added to the end of a word it makes the person or thing small. Uncle Mario was a small man, so he was Marionile. Zimmaneel was rightly, "Zio Marionile" which is to say, "Little Uncle Mario." I don't think that my father or his brothers and sisters really knew that.
Still, to this day, I do remember very cleary bringing those mussles into the kitchen, scraping off the beards and tossing the mussels into the pot. Garlic would go in, then wine and finally the crushed to tomatoes. The heady aroma of the kitchen mingled with the scent of sea salt still on our brown summer skin. A shiver ran down your back. But those days are gone. The shore line has retreated and the old pier was demolished. I know of nowhere else that children can go to collect mussels. In fact, I know of less than a few children who even know what mussels are.
These days, while I'm not familiar with obtaining seafood in other parts of the country, here in the East (Philadelphia) we have access to a fairly good variety. When it comes to mussels, there seem to be three kinds. The first kind of mussel is somewhat generic and when cooked, often gives little more than little orange knots of meat that, while they may flavor a sauce, are useless as a dish in themselves. The second group is indeed much better and yields a nice, fleshy meat that in color shifts between an orange and a yellow. There is no way that I know of to distinguish these types of mussels. Their quality is only evident once you cook them. And then it can be too late.
The third type found in the East is Prince Edward Island Mussels (PEI's). These are usually labeled. While these mussels tend to be on the pale side rather than the bright orange of wild mussels, they are fully formed and meaty delights.
When steaming the mussels, the foremost, most important and essential rule is not to overcook them. You need to remove them from the heat the very moment that the shells open: in the case of the two recipes below certainly no more than six or seven minutes. But, you can't just go by time, you have to keep watching. At the end of five minutes lift the cover and check repeatedly within seconds thereafter. If you go beyond their opening time, the mussels will shrivel into tasteless nodules.
For the same reason, do not cook the mussels in the sauce. Steam them open. Remove them from the pot while you prepare the sauce and then return them only at the end before you serve them.
Here's what a nicely steamed plump mussel looks like.
What you need
Large skillet or wok: I find more and more that a wok is the ideal pan
for any kind of pasta sauce. It's wide, round, deep and just made for pastas.
Lid: a large lid to cover the wok or pan.
Spider: to lift out the mussels.
Pair of tongs: to move the spaghetti.
Ladle: for the pasta water.
Sharp knife: for the garlic.
For the mussels:
Mussels: a bag. Usually they come in two pounds. PEI's (Prince Edward Island) if possible.
Tomatoes: Canned whole tomatoes. I like Cento San Marzano from Italy. If you don't have them, you can probably use any other whole canned tomato. But read the label. Buy tomatoes that don't have additives.
Garlic: at least a good five or six cloves, peeled and chopped.
White wine: a good cup.
Salt: I like coarse Kosher salt.
Pepper: I like to grind my own black pepper.
Getting Started: the mise-en-place.
Mussels alone - skip the spaghetti