It used to be that you could get marrow bones, chicken feet, mussels, chicken livers and so forth for barely a pittance. That’s hardly the case any more.
The first time I had roasted marrow bones, it was as an appetizer that totally blew my socks off. That was in 2003, at Prune, a beloved restaurant in the East Village better known for its weekend brunches. It came with a side of parsley salad, sharpened with pickle juice and capers. I loved that salad because it helped cut the richness.
Mussels are what I call “the poor man’s clam”. Two pounds of mussels will set you back about $10, enough for 1-2 people depending on what you’re using them for. I like them prepared simply, typically steamed with wine, beer or ouzo, with aromatic vegetables like garlic, fennel or leeks.
Another frequent appearance at my table is zuppa di cozze, or mussel soup. Think of plump mussels enrobed in a garlicky, piquant tomato sauce fragrant with anchovy and herbs. You can easily make it in half an hour. Add a salad, a glass of wine and a loaf of bread, and it’s a perfect meal.
Today’s offering is a variation on mussel soup. It requires just a bit more effort, but the results are worth it in the end.
Spicy Spanish Mussels, with Almond Picada
Adapted from this recipe from the New York Times.
2 pounds black mussels
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 toasted, skinned almonds
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 chipotle pepper, crumbled or a small pinch of dried red chile pepper flakes
1 14-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes or chopped tomatoes with juice (if using chopped tomatoes, pulse them to a purée in a food processor)
Pinch of sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry white wine
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Clean the mussels. Inspect each one carefully and discard any that have opened (if some are partly open, tap them with your finger and if they close back up they are O.K.) or have cracked shells. Place in a large bowl, fill the bowl with cold water and rinse several times, swishing the mussels around in the water, pouring out the water and refilling. Clean the shells, if necessary, with a brush or the end of one of the mussels, and pull out the beards – the hairy attachments emerging from the shells. Do not do this until just before cooking, or the mussels will die and spoil.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven, soup pot or lidded frying pan and add the almonds. Cook, stirring, until the nuts are golden brown and smell toasty, and add half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, taking care not to let it color and burn, about 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer to a mortar and pestle or a mini food processor.
Allow to cool, then mash or pulse until the mixture is just short of pasty; the nuts should retain some finely chopped texture. Work in 1 tablespoon of the parsley and set aside.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it is tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the remaining garlic and the chili and cook, stirring, for another minute, until the garlic is translucent.
Add the tomatoes, a pinch of sugar and salt and pepper to taste, and turn the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture has cooked down and is very fragrant.
Add the white wine and saffron (if using), and bring to a boil. Add the mussels, cover and steam 4 to 5 minutes, until they open. Stir the mussels halfway through to make sure they are evenly exposed to the heat. As they open, remove to a bowl with tongs. Discard any that have not opened. Keep warm.
Stir the nut and garlic mixture and the remaining parsley into the tomato sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Distribute the mussels among 2 wide soup bowls and spoon the sauce over. Serve with bread for sopping up the sauce.
This recipe is sized for 2 people.
Time: About 45 minutes, including prep.