Emilio Salgari, the Italian novelist best known for his tales of swashbuckling and action adventure, wrote a saga called “Il Corsaro Nero”, i.e. the Black Corsair. Not my kind of reading even when I was growing up but all the same, I was very amused last summer to find a beach shack selling only mussels on the beach of Porto San Giorgio on the Adriatic Coast of Italy playfully called “Il Cozzaro Nero” — i.e. the Black Mussel-Man. Very clever use of assonance for a shop name and what huge and wonderful mussels! How could one resist?
The Latin name for the Mediterranean mussel is Mytilus galloprovincialis but the Italian name for mussels can be quite a mystery in terms of synonyms … they are known as “mitili” or “muscoli” or “arselle” or “cozze” or even “peoci” depending on where you eat them. Here in Rome, just as in Porto San Giorgio, we call them “cozze”. And if a young man espies what he regards to be a particularly unattractive girl, he might well call her a “cozza” to describe her lack of graces. And I find that mysterious too … why would one think a mussel unattractive? I think they are quite beautiful to behold and, moreover, I wouldn’t be the first person to link an aphrodisiac element to their contour and flesh.
No one cooked mussels at home when I was growing up; it was only at a restaurant that I would get to eat any and so I have always thought of them as a special dish, a bit of a treat. Some people are a bit sniffy about mussels and I really don’t understand why. True, you’d be taking a bit of a risk eating them raw (I did when I had those blissful mussels from Taranto in Puglia last October and as you can see, I am safe and sound) but there is surely no reason to be worried about eating them cooked. Mussels are rich in protein and provide quite a bit of vitamin B12 and iron too – so no reason whatsoever to be sniffy about them.
In France, the tradition is to eat them cooked in butter with white wine and cream too – moules marinière – and quite lovely they are too. Here in Italy, on the other hand, the very idea of adding a milk-based product to fish is … well … outrageous. It’s just not done, that’s all I can say … if the expression “chalk and cheese” could be translated into Italian, an appropriate rendition might well be “fish and cheese”. And I think the reason lies in fact that, aside from the ubiquitous tomato-based sauce that is granted power even over fish, Italians like to taste the flesh of the fish as it is, ‘nature’ as the French say — Italians don’t want to camouflage any of its nuances – which is what a cream-based buttery sauce does, delicious though it might be. The only exception I’ve come across, and very recently at that, is a pasta dish made with mussels and a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese over it – works surprisingly well. I repeat, however, that this is an exception to the rule.
I was well into my thirties before I ventured to cook mussels myself and was immensely relieved to ascertain that it turned out to be more of hit- than a miss affair. There are quite a few recipes involving mussels that I hope to post on the blog, all of them very straightforward — cooking mussels is a bit of a no-brainer. However, one has to learn to walk before one can culinarily run and so, we’ll have to start with cleaning the mussels first … not the sort of activity one looks forward to exactly but it has to be done: no cheating!
DEALING WITH THE CLEANING
Cleaning mussels takes time and patience, I can’t pretend otherwise but I have found one major way to cut down on the elbow grease involved and that is the use of salt. Mussels come with all kinds of attachments to them that have to be removed known as a ‘beard’ in Italian, and then their shell has to be scrubbed too. One thing that must not be done, however, and which I very surprised to find in many food blogs and recipes is to soak them in water. Soaking them in water deprives them of some of their own juice, which is of utmost importance to the taste we are after – it would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Even the lady selling me mussels at the Corsaro Nero last summer made sure I was aware of this fact. So here in a nutshell are the steps of the cleaning:
1. Debeard the mussels, tugging strongly at the beard away from the thin towards the thicker end of the bivalve
2. Sprinkle the mussels very generously with coarse salt and let them lie in it for at least 20 minutes – the salt acts as a softener for all the bits that are attached to the shells, absorbing away while you get on with something more interesting
3. Scrub the shells or even rub two together to remove the sticky algae on the shells;
4. Rinse in plenty of cold water, removing the water almost straight away, for 6-8 times – you’ll know when to stop because the water gets cleaner and cleaner with every rinse.
5. Optional: Do this once to try it for yourself and be able to impart instructions accordingly, then find some poor sucker to do the job for you next time!
Here are the mussels with lots of salt poured over them, left in peace for about half an hour. Look at the amount of salt I used! It has done its job and can now be thrown away.
Here are two mussels joined together by a beard that we want to get rid of.
Tugging at the beard, from the thin end of the bivalve towards the thick end
The beard is removed, finally!
All the nasties that get thrown away …
And the good stuff now needs to be washed and rinsed several times …
The mussels are now ready to be cooked. Just one N.B. : the day I was using the above mussels, I knew I would not be needing the shells themselves in the dish I was about to prepare. Hence I did not scrub the mussels quite as much as I would have done if, instead, I would have had to use the shells for the recipe. They are not exactly pristine …!
STEAMING THE MUSSELS
All the mussels have opened, here they are still steaming and cooked to perfection (and not overcooked!)
Pour the precious liquid that they render through a sieve and keep aside for later use.
Here it is in all its milky marvellousness …
And now that I had plenty of mussel stock/liquid, I was able to prepare the following dish: couscous salad with mussels :
Pour the required amount of olive oil into a large frying pan/skillet, add the couscous and turn on heat. In another pan, bring the mussel juice to a boil and then pour onto the couscous. Mix well with a wooden spoon and cover and leave for five minutes until the couscous has absorbed all the liquid – about 5 minutes roughly. For 400g of couscous, you will need 600ml of liquid. Keep some hot water close by just in case you might need some more liquid.
Transfer the couscous to a large bowl and use a fork to unstick any sticky blobs of couscous. Once it has cooled down, you season it with a vinagirette made up of olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mix well and then add very thin slices of red onions and, last, the mussels. Basil leaves would have been nice but I didn’t have any, so used parsley. Serve at room temperature.