Occasionally I am in the mood for something romantic and fancy, yet easy so I can spend more time enjoying the meal rather than preparing it. Enter mussels. Don’t be intimated by the fact that they are in the seafood category. Mussels are easy to prepare and can be ready to eat in under 20 minutes. At less than five dollars a pound, they are inexpensive yet feel fancy. Additionally these gems are packed with flavor and nutrition. I first tried mussels over five years ago when Chris and I traveled to Italy & Greece. As soon as we got married, I had this idea in my mind that I wanted our one year wedding anniversary spent in Europe. I wanted to do this before babies, bills and other elements of adult life creeped up on us rather than wait for retirement. Funny that I often have ideas in my mind to do laundry or dishes but can’t seem to make them happen as easily as I did this trip. I put money away regularly, researched travel agents, read brochures for a few months and someone how convinced Chis who was incredibly reluctant. Off we went!
One night in Rome we were on a mission to find “the” restaurant to eat at while in Rome. Our travel agents, who have spent a lot of time in Rome, recommended this one particular place. Our hotel was near the main train station and this restaurant was supposedly on the opposite side of the city along the ancient Tiber River. We walked for hours looking for this place only to find out it had either a) closed down or b) the name we had memorized was actually a general name for restaurants in Rome. Needless to say, no one could really help us. It was getting late and we were famished. We tried to find another authentic place to eat, but everywhere we tried had stopped seating new guests or was closing down. Until we stumbled upon this small bistro in a dark alley that just had a little light on outside a tiny door with one table on the cobble stone sidewalk. It was calling our names. The owner said they had just closed down but would see if the kitchen could manage one last dinner and sent out the only English speaking waiter there (who was actually Dutch). We were tired, hungry and desperate. Not being able to identify a single thing on the menu we had the waitress and chef send out whatever they recommended and was available. I was expecting kitchen scraps and we had an elaborate 4-course meal, one of the best (and most expensive) in my life. I was nervous when the waitress said the kitchen was making us their fried seafood platter. Coming from Mississippi, the last thing I wanted was a giant plate of bland seafood masked by thick, overly salted, greasy layer of breading. To my delight we were served whole fish, sardines, shrimp and more that were only lightly dusted with breading. We could still see what we were eating and we were told that the seafood was caught that morning. The most exciting part of this meal was when an abnormally large steamy ceramic pot filled with oranges, herbs, wine and a shellfish that I couldn’t identify landed in the middle of our table. My fullness seemed to disappear as soon as the smell touched my nose. It turned out to be mussels and we ate every last one, using the leftover ciabatta to soak up as much of the mussel liquor as possible. Our meal lasted hours. We drank and ate with the staff until the streets were empty and I am forever grateful that they took two very lost and hungry Americans in. I said I wanted to get lost in Europe and we did. Since that evening, I am regularly in the mood for a little romantic adventure just when we were dining along the Tiber River. I go out and buy a few pounds of mussels and a fresh loaf of ciabatta or French bread to recreate it. Here’s how I make them in the summer. Please do gives these a try this weekend! Also shared some photos from our trip below. Happy weekend everyone!
Mussels in tomatoes, herbs and wine:
3 tablespoons butter, divided use
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Generous pinch fennel seed
Generous pinch red pepper flakes
4 large tomatoes, quartered
2 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
A few sprigs each of thyme, oregano, rosemary and marjoram
3 leaves basil, loosely torn into peaches
4-6 pounds mussels
1 loaf bread such as French or Ciabatta
Note: mussels are very forgiving and can be cooked in a variety of broths, herbs, flavorings etc. Use whatever you have in your kitchen. Maybe coconut milk for a thai version or atop creamy pasta.
- In a Dutch oven or your largest soup pot cook the shallot and garlic in 1 tablespoon of butter on medium-high heat until fragrant and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the fennel, red pepper flakes and tomatoes. Crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon and give it all a good stir. Cook until tomatoes have melted, 3-5 five minutes.
- Next add the stock, remaining butter, wine and herbs and bring to a simmer.
- Add your mussels and quickly cover the pot. Let the mussels steam for 8-10 minutes until they’ve opened up. Apparently, if the mussels don’t open after being steamed than you’re not supposed to eat them as it means they weren’t live when cooked. However, I’ve met people who don’t abide by that.
- Ladle the mussels out into a large ceramic bowl or baking dish. Simmer the sauce for a few minutes more to enhance the flavors released from the mussels. Pour the remaining liquid over the mussels using cheese cloth, a sieve or mesh strainer to catch any sand or grit. Serve with buttery French bread and wine. Enjoy!