Score another one for minimalist pasta sauces: an sauce that combines mussels harvested from Long Island Sound, then steamed with a little white wine and shelled; then combined with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, mussel juices and watercress.
It’s a sauce that’s redolent of winter and of the sea. Untouched by tomatoes, it has a purity that teaches you what seafood should taste like.
You can’t ask for much else than that.
Spaghetti with mussels, garlic and winter greens
1/2 lb. dried spaghetti
1 1/2 lbs. mussels
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small head watercress, trimmed and chopped
salt, to taste
a pinch of dried red chile flakes
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
Prepare spaghetti according to package directions. Drain. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water and set aside.
Place mussels in a large saucepan. Pour about 1/4 cup white wine over them, then cover the pot. Steam for about 5 to 6 minutes or until mussels open and are fully cooked. Discard any mussels that don’t open. Remove the pot from heat and let the mussels cool. Shell each mussel. Strain the mussel cooking liquid and set aside.
Add garlic and olive oil to a cold pan. Warm oil over medium heat. Once garlic has turned a pale gold, about 2 minutes, add a small pinch of salt, a scant pinch of chile flakes and the mussels. Add watercress. Fry for 1-2 minutes. You want the cress to wilt just enough so that it becomes tender but not too much that it loses its bright green color. Add cooked pasta and toss, ensuring that the spaghetti strands are coated with the sauce. If the pasta seems too dry, add reserved pasta cooking water tablespoon by tablespoon or until the desired consistency is reached. Taste for salt and pepper, then serve at once.
Serving cheese with this preparation would be a travesty, in my humble opinion.
Time: About 45 minutes, including prep.