Mussel Soup with Cranberry Beans, Celery, and Basil

Zuppa di Cozze con Fagioli Borlotti

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • For

    4 to 6

    Persons

Appears in

Marcella Cucina

By Marcella Hazan

Published 1997

  • About

There is a restaurant in Italy that seems never to have a free table, and it is not in one of the celebrated cities, but in Olbia, a shabby port town in northeastern Sardinia, on the ground floor of a modest hotel. It is Rita D’Enza’s Gallura. How to describe the flavor of Rita’s food? Intense, yet subtle; penetrating, yet gentle; surprising, yet comforting; sprightly, aromatic, surging from deeper sources of savor than anyone else seems to have tapped.

I adapted this mussel and bean soup from one of hers, and when I was working on seafood recipes one summer in the Hamptons on Long Island, it was the one dish that, once tasted, my friends asked me to make again and again. Even the photographer who came to shoot a story for Food & Wine magazine, and claimed he never ate at work, wiped the pot clean.

The procedure can be summed up simply: the beans are cooked separately; the mussels are steamed open; a base of olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomatoes is prepared and combined with the beans and mussel meat. The liquid for the soup comes from the bean broth and the mussel juices. Chili pepper, in minute quantity, adds spice with restraint; the distinctive fragrance is that of celery leaves and basil.

There is a lovely logic to the sequence by which the flavors of the soup are built up, each element of taste and texture layered over the other until they fuse into a delicious whole. Master the pattern, understand its sense, and you will be able to spin off from it versions with other legumes, with other seafood, with or without onion, with whole garlic cloves rather than chopped, with herbs other than celery leaves and basil.

Ingredients

  • pounds cranberry beans, fresh in their pods, or cup dried, soaked overnight
  • 3 pounds live mussels
  • cup extra virgin olive oil
  • cup very finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes with their juice
  • chopped fresh or dried chili pepper, to taste
  • 1 loosely packed cup chopped celery leaves
  • Salt
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • 12 large basil leaves, cut into very narrow strips

Method

  1. Put the fresh or reconstituted dried cranberry beans in a saucepan with enough water to cover by at least 2 inches. Put a lid on the pot and bring to a steady but gentle simmer over medium low heat. Cook until tender.
  2. Soak the mussels in several changes of cold water, scrubbing them vigorously each time with a stiff brush. Cut off any protruding whiskery tuft. Discard any mussel that does not clamp shut.
  3. Put the mussels in a large sauté pan, turn on the heat to high, and cover the pan. As soon as their shells swing open, transfer them to a bowl and set aside, pouring over them any liquid they may have shed. The pan should accommodate the mussels in a single layer. If it is not large enough to do so at one time, perform the operation in two or more stages.
  4. As soon as the mussels are cool enough to handle, pry the shells completely open and detach the meat, discarding the shells. Work right over the bowl that contained them so that all of their liquid flows back into the bowl into which you’ll put the meat. When you have shelled them all, retrieve the mussel meat from the bowl using a slotted spoon and put it into a smaller bowl. Slowly pour the juice in the bowl over the mussel meat, being very careful not to pour with it the sand that will have settled at the bottom of the bowl.
  5. Choose a lidded saucepan large enough to contain later all the beans and mussels and enough liquid for the soup. Put in all the olive oil and chopped onion and, without covering the pot, cook the onion over high heat, stirring from time to time, until it becomes colored a deep, tawny gold.
  6. Add the garlic, stirring and cooking it just until you begin to notice its aroma, taking care not to let its color become any darker than a very pale gold.
  7. Add the tomatoes with their juice and cook, always over high heat, for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chili pepper and the chopped celery leaves, turn everything over two or three times, and cook for 2 or 3 more minutes.
  8. Retrieve the mussel meat from its bowl using a slotted spoon, and put in the pot, turning it over with the pot juices for 2 or 3 minutes.
  9. Drain the cooked beans, but save their liquid, and add them to the pot. Turn them over with the other ingredients for a minute or two.
  10. Line a strainer with a sheet of paper towel and pour the mussel liquid through it and into the pot. Stir once or twice.
  11. Add to the pot enough of the beans’ cooking liquid to achieve a soupy, but not too runny, consistency. Stir well, turn the heat down to low, taste and correct for salt, add liberal grindings of pepper, and simmer gently for 10 more minutes. Just before transferring the contents of the pot to a serving bowl or tureen, swirl in the shredded basil.