Getting to know Mussels
I didn't always love mussels.
Early on in my eating career I made a few half-hearted attempts to enjoy these shelled wonders. But it was a fruitless pursuit, as I continued to ignore seafood pasta in favour of ragus or pesto.
It wasn't until travelling Italy with Ben on our 7 month world adventure that I realised how incredibly delicious a plate of fresh mussels could be. Though on a backpacking budget, anything tastes delicious (and free bread at restaurants is a saviour). Nevertheless, I believe it was the skilled hands of Italian seafood chefs who taught me how divine fresh mussels and clams can be. Whether decorating strands of pasta or piled in a bowl alongside a hunk of bread, I now swoon for bivalve beauties.
In line with my desire to get to know my food, and consuming and eating mindfully and thoughtfully, I've been making an effort to consciously select where my seafood comes from. Boy, is this a learning process. I still have a long way to go and am relying on tips from others who know more than me, so please do leave comments if you have suggestions on buying sustainable seafood. I'm hungry for knowledge.
The Sustainable Seafood app on my iPhone has been serving me well as a reference on the best types of fish and canned tuna to purchase. This app has taught me to avoid flake if buying fish and chips due to overfishing of shark meat, to really cut down my purchase of canned yellowfin tuna even if it is incredibly delicious (see this guide for more information), and to look for more wild Australian salmon when purchasing fresh fish. You can always ask your fishmonger about their practices (and favour pole and line fishing methods), to help guide your selection ( just one of the many benefits from shopping at smaller specialty stores). This guide gives you some great quick tips on sustainable seafood and is worth a look.
And if you can do one better, visit the fisherman himself! That's what we get to do when buying Harry's Mussels in Flinders.
How spoilt are we? These babies are outrageously good, they're big and sweet and such a bargain at $10 a kg. And they're a sustainable seafood choice. Mussels are filter feeders, meaning they rely on particles in the water for their food, and in consuming these nutrients they essentially clean the water. They're also a good source of selenium, zinc and protein, amongst other nutrients. During the Summer months and up until June, Michael Harris is parked on weekends and public holidays at Flinders pier on the Mornington Peninsula, selling his locally farmed goodies (this article gives you some more details on Mr Harris, along with tips on cooking mussels). We're just mad for them in our house.
My favourite way to enjoy mussels is with spaghetti, a simple assembly of garlic and parsley relying on starchy pasta cooking water to bring it all together in a silky sauce. Yes, this dish is a throw back to our days of slurping al dente strands in Vernazza and Ortigia and knowing quite certainly that there is nothing better in life. Because there isn't.
Here is our favourite version, which we enjoyed Tuesday for lunch for our 2 year Wedding anniversary. What a sweet day that was. I love our spaghetti-filled life... Mussels are just the icing on the cake.
Spaghetti con le Cozze
Inspired by Silvia Colloca's Spaghetti alle Vongole (her method is fabulous)
700g fresh, live Mussels, cleaned and debearded 200g Spaghetti (dried works best in this dish)
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive oil
1 clove Garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 a Red Chilli, finely chopped (seeds removed if you don't like heat)
2 handfuls fresh Flat Leaf Parsley leaves, roughly chopped
3 Parsley Stalks, chopped
1/4 cup Dry White Wine
1 cup Starchy Pasta Cooking Water (you won't use it all but do reserve 1 cup before draining your spaghetti)
More olive oil, freshly cracked Black Pepper and a squeeze of fresh Lemon Juice are optional extras when serving
1. Boil heavily salted water in a large pot. Cook your spaghetti until it is 3/4 cooked (as Silvia instructs) - it is best to err on the side of undercooked, as the al dente texture of the pasta in this dish is paramount to it's success (overcooked pasta is just so sad). Reserve 1 cup starchy pasta cooking water before draining.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large fry pan over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic, chilli and parsley stalks and cook for ~30 seconds before adding the white wine and letting the alcohol evaporate.
3. Add the mussels and half of the parsley leaves to the fry pan. Cover with a lid and allow to cook for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, lift the lid and check to see if any mussels are slightly open. Remove any open mussels into a bowl and put the lid back on, checking every minute and removing the open mussels until all are out of the pan and in the bowl.
4. Once the mussels are open and removed, add the 3/4 cooked pasta to the fry pan along with a good dash of the starchy cooking water (which will help create a silky sauce) and allow the pasta to cook for a minute or so until almost al dente but still not quite ready (adding more pasta cooking water as required. The amount you use will depend on how much juice the mussels give, you don't want it soupy, but the pan should not be dry).
5. When you're one minute away from perfectly al dente pasta, add the mussels back to the pan with the remaining parsley and toss everything together (again, adding more pasta cooking water if required). Taste and add a little sea salt if required (as the mussel liquid is salty, it may not be necessary)
6. Serve in generous bowls, topped with a extras if desired such as a drizzle of extra virign olive oil, freshly cracked black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.