Welcome to Italy!
Our food appreciation classes landed in Venice this week and there are so many culinary adventures to be had in Italy I think we may be here for a while.
Venice is famous for its art, its canals and its gondolas. But it also happens to be situated on the Adriatic. Consequently, Venetians love their seafood.
Mussels are one of my favorite foods. They are a great source of protein that’s relatively cheap compared to other aquatic species. And mussels are abundant, both in the wild and in the farmed seafood economy, which is more environmentally friendly than many other fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program rates farmed mussels a “best choice” because “they are farmed in an environmentally responsible way.” Here in the Mid-Atlantic, farmed mussels are readily available from Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Like oysters, mussels are a bivalve, meaning the creature lives inside a shell and filters food from the surrounding water. In the wild, mussels attach themselves with filaments to rocks or wooden piers. These “beards” needs to be pulled off before you eat them. Mussels spoil quickly so they must be alive and odorless when you purchase them. The shells should be tightly closed. If not, you can test them by pinching the shells closed. If the shells stay closed, the mussel is still alive. If not, throw it away. Keep them refrigerated until you plan to use them, preferably within a few hours of purchase.
Many cultures have recipes for mussels. The Belgians love theirs steamed with a side of french fries. In Venice, the preparation is extremely simple and the mussels can be eaten as a starter or as a main course. They are delicious hot off the stove, or at room temperature as an antipasto, or even chilled served in the shell or in a salad.
To start, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot. Over moderate heat, saute until soft (about 5 minutes) one fairly large shallot, diced small and seasoned with a generous pinch of salt. Add 2 pounds cleaned mussels and douse with about 1/3 cup white wine (we used non-alcoholic wine in our classes: it works just as well). Place the lid on the pot and allow the mussels to steam until fully cooked. As the mussels cook, the shells open. The meat should be plump and firm when done. Discard any shells that do not open.
Stir a fistful of chopped parsley into the pot and distribute the mussels into warm bowls along with some of the broth. Younger kids may be skeptical about the wisdom of eating mussels, but the older ones love pulling the meat out with their fingers, making this a great sloppy fun meal. Be sure to have a good bread on hand for sopping up the broth.