When I was living in Rome, there was a great little roadside restaurant close by called “Il Cantuccio”. They made a number of dishes well, but one of our standbys was sautè di cozze, literally “mussel sauté”. They are, in fact, an Italian version of that near universal dish: steamed mussels.
I like the conviviality of this dish—serve your large pot of mussels in the center of the table and let each diner serve themselves a nice portion of mussels and liquor. You can eat it by grabbing a mussel shell gingerly with your left hand while removing the mussel with a fork or a spoon. (I prefer a spoon, because you can immerse the mussel in some of the sauce before you eat it for maximum flavor.) Make sure to have an extra bowl at table for discarded shells.
Ingredients (serves 4 as a secondo, 6 as an antipasto)
To pre-cook the mussels:
1 bag of mussels
A splash of white wine (say about 1/2 cup)
For the soffritto and final cooking:
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1-2 peperoncini, chopped and seeds removed(or a dash of red pepper flakes)
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
You wash the mussels under cold water and, if you have any doubts they might have sediment in them (see Notes), soak them in water to cover for at least an hour. Throw them into a pot, add a generous splash of wine, cover and cook over medium-high heat until all the mussels have opened. This should take only a couple of minutes. Then take them immediately off the heat, fish out the mussels with a slotted spoon, leaving their liquor in the bottom of the pot. (NB: Mollusks will get tough if you overcook them.)
While the mussels are steaming, sauté the garlic in a second pot, big enough to contain the mussels later. When the garlic just starts to brown a bit, add the chopped peperoncini or some red pepper flakes (to taste) and some chopped parsley, let this soffritto sauté very gently for a moment, until the garlic gives off a nice aroma.
Then immediately but gently pour the mussel liquor into second pot, making sure to leave the sediment you sometimes find at the bottom of the pot. Allow the liquor to reduce until it is very flavorful. If you think it needs salt, add some now, but the mussels are usually quite briny, so you may need none at all.
Then add the reserved mussels to the second pot, then some chopped parsley, stir well to coat the mussels with the ‘sauce’. Sprinkle a bit of additional chopped parsley on top and bring the pot to the table. Serve with crusty bread—a baguette is ideal—to sop up that delicious sauce!
We followed our sautè di cozze with a mixed green salad and a hunk of bucheron cheese (yum!), followed by mango sorbet topped with blackberries and laced with Cointreau. After dinner, a limoncello helped it all gone down nicely as we watched Slumdog Millionaire.
NOTES: If you want to make a slightly fancier dish, you can remove one side of the shell from each mussel (the one that the mussel meat is not clinging to, of course) while the sauce is reducing. That also allows you to serve more mussels in a somewhat smaller pot.
As always, there are any number of variations you can use to keep the dish interesting. Most notably, clams be mixed with, or substituted for the mussels, which case you will have either a sautè di cozze e vongole or a sautè di vongole. Add spaghetti (or linguine) to a saute di vongole and you will have the classic spaghetti alle vongole, pasta with clam sauce.
You can also vary the seasonings. Most commonly, you can make a ‘red sauce’ by adding some chopped or pureed tomato to the flavored oil and allow it to simmer for a minute or two before adding the mussel and/or clam liquor. Or you can make a more delicate sauce by substituting shallots for the garlic and red pepper, in which case you might want to add a tad of butter to the oil. And, of course, if you want to branch out of Italian cuisine, other possibilities open up: cream, beer or, as featured in another post, curry….
This dish is pretty easy, but if you want to make it even easier, you can add the raw mussels directly to the flavored oil, let them steam and serve. The resulting dish will be less intensely flavorful, but there will be more abundant liquor for dipping. (In fact, this is often called zuppa di cozze, or mussel soup.) But be careful, as there may be sediment in the bottom of the pot.
Speaking of sediment, some recipes call for soaking mussels and clams in water for some time (usually about an hour) before cooking, to purge them of their sediment. I usually find this step to be unnecessary, these days mussels are often ‘farmed’ in such a way that they never gather sediment. In any event, if you steam them separately, you can leave any sediment traces at the bottom of the pot. (And if you are really fastidious, you can filter the liquor through some cheesecloth.) But if you have any doubts about your mussels—especially if they are very large—do soak them. Mussels also sometimes come with a ‘beard’—the filaments that the mussel used to attach itself to the rocks on which it used to live. If you find a beard on any of your mussels, you’ll need to pull or cut it off—but most mussels these days are sold pre-trimmed.
One final word to the wise: look for smaller mussels for this dish. Larger mussels (or clams) may seem like a better deal, but they tend to have flabbier texture and are less sweet than the small ones. And because of their size they do not marry as well with the sauce.