Seafood tends to be expensive, but, for some reason, mussels remain very affordable. Plus, they’re delicious and very quick to make. In our house, we love the classic sautè di cozze (steamed mussels sautéed with garlic and hot pepper) but for a change, you can take steamed mussels in different directions. In this recipe for mussels gratin, steamed mussels are partially shelled and topped with seasoned breadcrumbs before being run under the broiler. It makes for an awesome light antipasto. You lose the mussel broth, but the broiling intensifies the mussel’s briny flavor.
Serves 4-6 as an antipasto
- 1 bag of mussels (cleaned and trimmed, see Notes)
- White wine
For the topping:
- 150-200g (1-1/2 to 2 cups) breadcrumbs
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley, chopped
- Olive oil
- The liquor from steaming the mussels
- Salt and pepper
Put the mussels into a large pot with a splash of white wine over moderately high heat. Cover and let the mussels steam for a few minutes, just until they have all opened, then quickly scoop them out of the pot and set aside to cool. Drain the mussel liquor left at the bottom of the pot into a cup or small bowl, leaving any sediment behind.
Prepare the topping by mixing the breadcrumbs with the chopped garlic and parsley, then a good drizzle of olive oil, just enough so that the breadcrumbs take on a sandy consistency. Moisten with the mussel liquor until it takes becomes crumbly, but not so much that it forms a solid ‘dough’. If you’ve gone too far, you can always add more crumbs. If for some reason you don’t have enough mussel liquor, just add water. Season to taste.
When the mussels are cool enough to handle, remove the half of the shell that is not connected to the meat. Cover each mussels with a spoonful of the topping, pressing down just enough for the breadcrumbs to adhere, but not enough for form a solid mass. Arrange the mussels, in a single layer meat side up, in individual gratin dishes (or one large one). Drizzle them with some additional olive oil.
To finish the dish, pass the mussels under a broiler until they are nice and golden brown on top. Serve your mussels gratin immediately.
Mussels these days are more often than not farmed and can be used as is, just lightly rinsed. If you are working with wild mussels—much tastier than the farmed kind, but a bit more trouble—you will need to trim off their ‘beards’ with a pairing knife and thoroughly rinse them of any exterior grit. (The ‘beard’ is the collection of little filaments called the ‘byssus’ that emerge from the between the shells they mussels use to attach themselves to the rocks they live on. It is edible but does not make for pleasant eating.)
If you don’t have access to fresh mussels or want to eliminate the bother of prepping them, the dish can also be made with the shelled mussels that are sometimes sold in cans or jars—just make sure they’re not marinated or smoked. Drain them, reserving their juice, and lay them out on a gratin dish in a single layer. Use the juice to moisten the topping as you would the mussel liquor, then sprinkle the topping over the top and proceed from there. They won’t be as fine as with fresh mussels, of course, but they’ll be tasty all the same.
One tip from Uncle Frank: Resist the temptation to overstuff these guys like the stuffed clams you’ll find in your typical Italian-American ‘red sauce’ joint. You want to keep the dish and you want the taste of the mussels to come through. The topping is there to complement, not overwhelm. And, for the same reason, don’t pack the topping down so it forms a solid mass.
If you don’t have a broiler, you can finish your mussels gratin in a very hot oven (as hot as you can get it) for 5 minutes or so. Add a bit of white wine at the bottom of the gratin dish so the mussels don’t dry out.