Mussel and Basil Sauce for Pasta

Sugo di Cozze e Basilico

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Enough sauce for 1 pound of pasta, making

    4

Appears in

Bruno Paolato is the cooking partner in Ai Mercanti, one of the Venetian restaurants where I feel most at home. I prefer to think of Bruno as a cook rather than a chef, a distinction that he, and his colleagues, may not find as flattering as I do. Never mind. The most satisfying source of Italian cooking is the home, rather than a professional academy, and I prize those restaurants whose food, however accomplished it may be, still tastes of cooks at home preparing it for their family. An example is this mussel sauce of Bruno’s.

It has become my favorite mussel sauce by far. Its secret lies in lightly coloring chopped garlic together with chopped basil and chili pepper over a foundation of onion briefly sautéed in olive oil. In that simple, homey step an airy fragrance is established that eventually saturates the mussels, bestowing on them a sense of lightness and freshness that no other sauce using mussels shares.

You can easily convert this into a lovely soup by using all of the juices shed by the mussels when you open them. If served as soup, accompany it with a slice of grilled bread over which you have dribbled some olive oil.

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Ingredients

  • 4 pounds mussels in their shells
  • ½ cup water
  • Salt
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ pound fresh, ripe tomatoes
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • ½ cup chopped fresh basil
  • Chopped chili pepper, teaspoon or to taste
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

Method

Suggested Pasta

Thin spaghetti—spaghettini—is the best carrier for this sauce, as it usually is for olive-oil based seafood sauces. The thicker regular spaghetti is a satisfactory second choice.

  1. Soak the mussels in several changes of cold water and scrub clean.
  2. Put the cleaned mussels in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan together with the ½ cup water, salt, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Turn the heat on to high and cover the pan. As soon as the shells gape open, transfer the mussels to a bowl and set aside, pouring over them the liquid from the pan.
  3. When they are cool enough to handle, detach the mussel meat from the shell and put it in a smaller bowl. Carefully spoon the juices from the larger bowl over the mussel meat, watching out for the sand that will have settled at the bottom of the bowl. Let the mussels steep in their juices for at least 20 minutes without moving them so that any sand remaining on the meat can sink to the bottom.
  4. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out their seeds without squeezing them, then cut into small dice and set aside.
  5. Put the chopped onion and the remaining olive oil in a medium skillet and turn on the heat to medium high. Cook the onion, stirring from time to time, just until it becomes translucent. Add the garlic, chopped basil, and chili pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic becomes colored a very pale gold. Take the pan off heat.
  6. Using a slotted spoon, gently retrieve the mussel meat from the bowl without stirring up the juices. Choose the 16 loveliest mussels and set them aside. Chop the remainder not too fine. Filter the juices through a strainer lined with a paper towel, collecting them in a small bowl. You may be using these juices subsequently if you need to make the sauce runnier.
  7. Return the pan with the onion, garlic, and basil to the stove, turn on the heat to medium high, and put in the chopped mussels and the white wine. Let the wine simmer until half of it has evaporated, then add the whole mussels, the tomato dice, and the parsley. If the sauce appears to be too dry, add some of the filtered mussel juice. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes.
  8. Thoroughly toss the sauce in a warm platter with just-cooked and drained pasta and serve at once.

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