Lekker: Tomato Basil Mussels

Interrupting my series of traditional Roman recipes from my cooking class with Chef Andrea, I'm here to bring you one of my all-time favourite recipes--the sexy, tasty, PERFECT Italian inspired date night meal: Tomato Basil Mussels.

I first discovered these when I was in Italy last summer in a small town called Ospedaletti on the northern coast. I'd never had mussels before, but when my uncle ordered a pot I couldn't resist trying one. (Try everything twice, right?)

They're his favourite food, and he always cites a sweet story to go along with them: many years ago, he and his wife took a trip to visit my parents at their home in South Africa where they went to the beach to pick mussels straight from the shore. They cooked them right then and there on the beach in a pot of boiling seawater, accompanied only by a bottle of white South African wine that had been shoved into the wet sand to keep cold.

The mussels my uncle ordered on *this* particular salty beach night were still simple and delicious, but a little more dressed up with tomatoes and basil and a few other things I sussed out after being a complete weirdo in the middle of the restaurant, spreading the sauce out on a plate to closer examine the contents, sniffing it, tasting it, and generally making a strange sight of myself. NO SHAME IN MY TOMATO BASIL GAME THOUGH, because as soon as I got home to the States I got to work trying to replicate it and I think I've got it pretty down pat. *brushes shoulders off*

This weekend my main study abroad boo Gracia and I were able to snag our dorm kitchen for a two-hour block and got a chance to cook up these beauties. We'd spied them at the fish counter many times before, and at only 3 Euro per kilo (that's about an obscene $2 a pound, and my father nearly wept when I told him) it would have been foolish to resist.

Gracia is the closest I come to having a date over here but I do recommend this as an actual date meal, something to cook together. It's perfectly achievable by yourself, of course, but even more fun to do with someone else--and in my opinion, eating them is just plain sexy too: using your hands to eat, joining each other in giggles over struggling with the shells, juice dripping down...places...


Here we go!

LOOK AT THAT BEAUTY! I like to eat my mussels solely with a hunk of French bread to soak up the delicious broth, but Gracia (and many others I know) likes to serve mussels on top of a pile of spaghetti with the broth acting as a sauce.

That was a fake out, sorry. BEFORE we begin, a few things to know about mussels if you've never made them:

  • They're pretty cheap, as far as seafood is concerned--you can usually find them for about $5-$6 a pound in the States. When you're buying them at the fish counter inspect them closely for any broken shells or ones that are open. IF THEY ARE OPEN THEY ARE DEAD! Mussels should have dark glossy shells and be tightly closed, and they should not be stored on ice.
  • Mussels are alive before you cook them, so as soon as you get them home unwrap them and store them in the fridge in a bowl with some damp paper towels wrapped around them. Only buy mussels the day you plan to cook them.
  • About 20-30 minutes before you're ready for them to go into the pot, fill two large bowls with cold water and salt one a little bit. Dump the mussels into the bowl with the salted water (here they can "breathe" and expel any grit or sand they're holding on to) and go through them, tossing any that are broken or otherwise open.
  • Under cold running water, one at a time, use a small brush or pad to thoroughly scrub the outside of the shell to remove any barnacles and sea dirt. You'll also have to remove the "beard", which are fibers that protrude from the shell. It's gross and looks like something you'd find wrapped around your vacuum cleaner brush, but it's easy to get rid of--just hold the mussel in one hand, and with the other grasp the beard and pull down and out towards the hinge. The mussel will give it up. Toss the mussel (gently) into the second bowl of unsalted water and keep them there until you're ready to steam.

Tomato Basil Mussels
serves 2

What You Need
1 pound of mussels per person, approximately
2 T olive oil
1 smallish white or yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes in their juice, crushed roughly with your hands (so fun!)
1 large handful fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
~1 cup low sodium vegetable broth (you might need a little more depending on how "brothy" you want the sauce to be)
1 lemon, scrubbed clean and sliced into rounds
To serve: a hunk of crusty bread, or cooked spaghetti. Or nothing at all, like the animal you are.

What You Do
1. Prep the mussels as described above. (This is where having two people comes in handy, because one of you can be doing mussel prep while the other does broth prep.)

2. Meanwhile in a large pot over medium heat, saute your onions and garlic together in the olive oil for about 4 minutes or until beginning to turn golden brown. Add the wine and cook for about 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, half of the basil, and the vegetable broth and turn heat to low to simmer for about 10 minutes or so just to let the flavours meld. 

3. Time to add your mussels! Drain them from their water bath and add them to the pot along with the other half of the basil and about half of the lemon rounds. Cover the pot with a lid and let those babies steam away for 5-10 minutes until they're all opened, stirring once in between to make sure that delicious broth gets all up into those nooks and crannies.

4. Garnish with a lemon slice and any basil you have left over, and serve! Discard any mussels that didn't open (they're probably dead) and have at it. You can use a fork to pry them out of their shells and into your waiting maw, or you can be uber sophisticated and use one of the shells to scoop it out. Enjoy!

Some advice: you might want to fish out the lemon slices from the pot before you serve. Depending on what kind of lemons you get, their skins might exude a little TOO much lemon flavour if they sit in the broth too long, making the whole thing decidedly bitter.

There is no love like that betwixt a woman and her mussels.


Posted on March 29, 2015 .