Cozze alla tarantina (Mussels Taranto Style)

Frankantipasti, Puglia, secondi piatti28 Comments

Cozze alla tarantina (Mussels Taranto Style)

From the city of Taranto in the region of Puglia comes this a simple but tasty take on mussels, cozze alla tarantina, or Mussels Taranto Style.

Taranto has been famous for its exquisite mussels since ancient times, when their deliciousness was praised by such luminaries as Pliny the Elder. Taranto mussels are especially sweet and juicy, said to result from the special qualities of the sea on which Taranto lies, whose salinity is tempered by flows from underwater fresh water springs.

Prepared in the Taranto manner, mussels are quickly steamed in lightly sautéed garlic and white wine, then tossed with a fresh tomato sauce and its own briny liquor. The dish is simplicity itself, quickly done with just a handful of ingredients. But rest assured, the taste of cozze alla tarantina will not disappoint, even if you don’t have access to the exquisite mussels of Taranto. And don’t forget some crusty bread for soaking up that wonderful sauce!

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

For steaming the mussels:

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) mussels, cleaned if necessary (see Notes)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • A few parsley stems
  • olive oil
  • white wine

For the sauce and finishing the dish:

  • 300-500g (10-1/2 oz to 1 lb) fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeds removed and cut into dice (see Notes)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • olive oil
  • 1 peperoncino or a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • The leaves from a few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced

Directions

Take a few sprigs of fresh parsley, cut off the stems and set aside. Finely mince the leaves.

Steaming the mussels

In a large saucepan, lightly sauté the garlic, parsley stems in olive oil just until the garlic begins to give off its fragrance. Add the mussels, give them a turn, then pour in a good glug of white wine.

Cover and let the mussels steam until they have all opened, shaking the pan from time to time. It should only take a minute or two. (If any fail to open, discard them.)

Remove the mussels to a bowl and reserve their cooking juices in the pan until needed.

Preparing the sauce and finishing the dish

In another large saucepan or sauté pan, gently sauté the second garlic clove (and the peperoncino if using) in olive oil. When the garlic begins to give off its aroma, add the tomatoes. Let them simmer until they have reduced down to a saucy consistency but not entirely melted, perhaps 5-10 minutes, depending on the type and quality of tomato you’re using.

Pour the reserved juices from the steamed mussels into the sauce. Make sure that you avoid adding any slit that may have settled at the bottom of the pan. (You can pour the juices through a colander lined with cheesecloth, just to be on the safe side.)

Stir and let the sauce once again reduce down a bit. Add a pinch of the minced parsley, then taste and adjust for seasoning. (Since the mussel juices are quite briny, it may not need much or perhaps any seasoning.)

Add the mussels into the pan and toss them with the sauce. Simmer just for another minute or two to rehead the mussels, tossing so they are well covered with the sauce.

Serve right away, sprinkled with minced parsley, with a good crusty bread on the side.

Notes

As you will have seen, cozze alla tarantina is super quick and easy to make. But there are a few pointers to bear in mind, in particular when it comes to its two principal ingredients, mussels and tomatoes.

Dealing with mussels

Most mussels sold today are farmed. You can usually use farmed mussels as is, perhaps just rinsing them quickly to eliminate any traces of silt. Wild mussels, if you can find them, will have bolder flavor but need some prepping. You should soak them in well salted water for at least an hour before steaming. The soak will purge them of any sand on their insides. And the outsides need to be trimmed of their ‘beards’, the filaments that they use to cling onto rocky surfaces in the wild.

If you are very sure that your mussels are sand-free, you could just add them, without pre-steaming, directly into the tomato sauce. But if you do so and you’re wrong, there’s no way back. Which is why I prefer to play it safe and steam them separately. That way, any silt they might have inside winds up on the bottom of the saucepan, which you can then easily filter out before adding their juices to the sauce.

… and the tomatoes

There are various way to get tomato into the dish. The classic method is the one described here, using fresh tomatoes peeled, seeds removed and cut into small dice. It produces a lovely light broth with a distinct but not overpowering tomato flavor. For an even lighter touch, you could use grape or cherry tomatoes, cut in half and sautéed until just wilted. When you don’t have good fresh tomatoes to hand, you can opt for passata, milled canned tomatoes or, best of all in my opinion, canned datterini (marketed as ‘Baby Romas‘). As indicated above, just how much tomato you add is really up to you. When using fresh tomatoes, I like to add half as much tomato as mussels by weight, and rather less when using canned.

Fare la scarpetta

There’s an expression in Italian, fare la scarpetta, literally meaning ‘to make the little shoe’. It refers to the not very refined but nearly universal practice among Italians of using bread to soak up the extra sauce or juices from a dish. Apparently the origins of the expression are unclear, but the act of tracing your bread across a plate is sort of reminiscent—using your imagination—of dragging your shoes on the ground, picking up dirt or mud as you go. Italians are usually fairly fastidious about using utensils, but in informal settings it’s perfectly fine to take the bread in your hands and do the deed. And even if you’re in polite company, you can still fare la scarpetta without causing a stir if you use a fork instead.

Anyway, it’s an expression that comes to mind when enjoying this dish. Cozze alla tarantina is a dish that practically screams out for a good crusty bread to soak up those deliciously briny juices. For a DOC version of the dish, go for a rustic pane pugliese (Puglia Style Bread). If you have an Italian bakery in your area, they’ll probably carry it. If not, you could use our recipe for pane casereccio, using a mixture of semola rimacinata (finely ground semolina flour) and bread flour, in a ratio of say 2:1 or 3:1. And in a pinch, a good quality baguette will do very nicely, too.

Making Ahead

Cozze alla tarantina is so quick to make there’s not too much point in making it ahead, but if you need to, you could pre-steam the mussels and prepare the sauce beforehand, then just before serving, heat up the sauce and toss in the steamed mussels.

Cozze alla tarantina

Mussels Taranto Style

Ingredients

For steaming the mussels:

  • 1 kilo 2 lbs mussels cleaned if necessary
  • 1 clove garlic
  • a few parsley stems 
  • olive oil
  • white wine

For the sauce and finishing the dish:

  • 300-500g 10-1/2 oz to 1 lb fresh tomatoes peeled, seeds removed and cut into small dice
  • 1 clove 1 clove garlic
  • olive oil
  • 1 peperoncino or a pinch of red pepper flakes optional
  • Salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of fresh parsley finely minced

Instructions

  • Take a few sprigs of fresh parsley, cut off the stems and set aside. Finely mince the leaves. 
  • In a large saucepan, lightly sauté the garlic, parsley stems in olive oil just until the garlic begins to give off its fragrance. Add the mussels, give them a turn, then pour in a good glug of white wine. 
  • Cover and let the mussels steam until they have all opened, shaking the pan from time to time. It should only take a minute or two. (If any fail to open, discard them.)
  • Remove the mussels to a bowl and reserve their cooking juices in the pan until needed. 
  • In another large saucepan or sauté pan, gently sauté the second garlic clove (and the peperoncino if using) in olive oil. When the garlic begins to give off its aroma, add the tomatoes and let them simmer until they have reduced down to a saucy consistency but not entirely melted, perhaps 5-10 minutes, depending on the type and quality of tomato you're using. 
  • Pour the reserved juices from the steamed mussels into the sauce, making sure that you avoid adding any slit that may have settled at the bottom of the pan. (If there's a lot, you can pour the juices through a colander lined with cheesecloth, just to be on the safe side.) Stir and let the sauce once again reduce down a bit. Add a pinch of the minced parsley, then taste and adjust for seasoning. (Since the mussel juices are quite briny, it may not need much or perhaps any seasoning.)
  • Add the mussels into the pan and toss them with the sauce. Simmer just for another minute or two to rehead the mussels, tossing so they are well covered with the sauce.
  • Serve right away, sprinkled with minced parsley, with a good crusty bread on the side

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28 Comments on “Cozze alla tarantina (Mussels Taranto Style)”

  1. Aw, man. Now you got me craving mussels.

    And this after having just made a trip to the coast. I had seafood, but the shellfish I ate were oysters, not mussels.

    1. There’s only one way to cure that craving, Mark! I do love oysters, too, though. Funnily enough, however, there are few Italian recipes for them. Mostly enjoyed raw with a little lemon over there.

  2. Mussels are a Swedish favorite as well, we have both wild (very controlled) and rack grown mussels all on our West coast. Moules Marinières is most seen here on the dinner table, so your Cozze alla tarantina will be a brilliant change. Thanks for sharing…

    1. Thanks, Ron! I think you’ll like this. Although I do like moules marinières a lot, I think this preparation is even tastier.

  3. We haven’t made mussels at home in a while – and this recipe is inspiring me to put it on the menu soon! I don’t believe I have seen canned datterini in the store…but you better believe I will be keeping an eye out now. We did find a fantastic bakery nearby that makes good breads, so we’ve got that angle covered. (I love baking breads myself, but sometimes it’s just easier to pick it up at the store!)

    1. If you do try it, David, I hope you like it! Actually I’m pretty sure you will. And don’t sweat the tomatoes, so long as they’re flavorful the dish will come out just fine.

  4. i love mussels but have them rarely as hubby doesn’t eat them. I have fond memories of mussels in Brussels! a huge pot of them all to myself. so good.

    1. That’s too bad, Sherry. I’d hate to be deprived of my mussels except when eating out. But then, marriage is a series of compromises, I guess. Like life in general!

  5. Absolutely love mussels and can occasionally get wild ones from friends living in coastal areas. Usually just steamed with wine and herbs shall take the next ‘lot’ further in taste by following you ! use bread your way – yes, a;ways and the only cutlery surely needed is a small fork to fish the first ‘beastie’ out of its shell – after that the latter is the only ‘cutlery’ needed . . . !!!

  6. Aren’t simple things often the best?! This dish 100% proves that point. Steamed mussels plus a simple yet flavourful sauce… I mean give me some crusty bread, and I will be absolutely happy about this meal!

  7. Love mussels! And you’re right about the bread — definitely not optional. And I’m all for using my hands. Guess I’m not polite company. 🙂 Really nice recipe — thanks.

    1. Ha! Well, I’m not polite company, either. I could count on one hand the times I may have used my fork to “fare la scarpetta”.

  8. That’s another delicious recipe which I will be trying. The “fare la scarpetta” expression reminds me of the Dordogne expression ” faire chabrol” – where one adds a little wine to the final dregs of Tourin à l’Ail and then laps it up like a goat!

  9. We are huge mussel fans — can’t wait to give this a try. I love the “fare la scarpetta” description. Glad I don’t often find myself in polite company — using a fork would be fine, but I think using your hand is much more tactile an experience! Have a great Sunday!

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