This weekend marked my first big dive into Italian efforts. I decided to kick things off with a bang. While reading through the ad for a local grocery, I saw that mussels were on sale. I quickly scanned through my Cook Italy book and found a recipe for mussels that looked pretty good. I love shellfish, but rarely cook it, and I can’t recall ever cooking mussels before. The recipe I decided on was Tiella de Antonietta, or Rice, Potato, and Mussels baked in Terracotta. It was a layered casserole of potatoes, tomatoes, Arborio rice, and mussels. There was also some pecorino cheese in there, then the whole thing is soaked in white wine and fish stock to make a delicious sounding one-pot meal.
I went to the market and bough the mussels, along with some pecorino and some tomatoes that smelled exactly like tomatoes I once picked in my grandmother’s garden in Brandt, OH. I chatted with the dishy fishmonger about how to properly store and cook mussels. He reiterated what the book had instructed me to do – to store them cold, soak them in salt water, and cook them today. This evening I dove in.
There they are, swimming in their salty ice water. I will admit I was intimidated at the idea that I was going to be the cause of death for all these guys. I will be a complete wreck when it comes to lobster, and heaven help me when I finally convince my husband to get those chickens. I do have an adorable picture on my phone of a calf that will be on my table in a few months, though. But that’s a different matter entirely.
Mise en place!
The casserole is pretty simple. Layers of thinly sliced potatoes, and tomatoes, cheese, a layer of mussels and rice, then onion, garlic, more tomatoes and potatoes. Then that entire box of fish stock hiding back by the pineapple and a cup of that wine are poured over the top. Bake for an hour and serve. It came together fairly quickly and was pretty good!
After I put together the dish, I realized I was in a bit of a pickle. I had purchased a 2 pound bag of mussels, not knowing how many that held. The recipe called for 15-20 mussels, and that didn’t even use up half the bag. I threw in some extra for good measure, but still found myself with a pound of mussels that needed a home. I remembered reading a quick recipe for stuffed mussels elsewhere in the book. It was extremely simple. Steam the mussels in a little white wine. Separately, pulse breadcrumbs, basil, and garlic in a food processor. Toss the mussel meat in the breadcrumbs, stir in 1/4 c olive oil and salt, then put the mussel meat back in the shells. Broil and eat. Why not?
My husband had never in his life eaten a mussel. Eating this little dish was his first experience. And he loved them. The funny thing is that the dish that I started out to make, that I spent all the time working on, it was just ok. Good, but not something I’d probably make again. However, this simple throw-away dish that was just there to use up the rest of an expensive ingredient was perfection. We ate the entire pound of mussels with our fingers standing over the kitchen counter.
For my first real experiment, I’m proud. The food was somewhere between ok and great, but I’m mostly proud of myself for trying an ingredient I had never worked with before. Really, you don’t have much to lose in the kitchen on a lazy Sunday night, but I’m proud that I left my comfort zone and gave this a try!