Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I Want Mussels!

Well, not all over my body. That would be uncomfortable. But I would like a big bowl of them to eat, please. These little bivalves are irresistible. And we can get them on almost every corner: Pop’s, Rue Cler, Panzanella, Milltown (and maybe other places I'm forgetting). Panzanella spices theirs up with a peppery local sausage; be sure to dip their focaccia in the broth. Rue Cler offers a French bistro approach, steaming the mussels in white wine. Have a glass of Muscadet and enjoy the best moules frites in the area. Closer to home, Milltown serves them Belgian-style (the mussels are cooked in ale). The quality of Milltown’s food can be uneven, but they usually do the mussels and frites just right.

While in Chicago last spring, we went to a bar that influenced Milltown’s menu (as confirmed by one of the co-owners): Hop Leaf. At this Chicago hangout the house specialty is mussels steamed in Belgian white ale, served with frites and aioli (they serve lots of other hearty fare, too, like organic sausages and crispy duck leg confit). Having done my research on Chowhound, we knew the drill. The bar was packed to the gills when we walked in at 4:45. The restaurant, located in the rear of the building, opens at 5:00. We grabbed a beer, and then staked out a place near the back, ready to queue up for dinner. Sure enough, right at 5:00, all the eager diners in the bar formed a line to get their mussels and frites. We were the second party seated. And our dinner was délicieux!

Usually I avoid “all you can eat” restaurants. None of us should ever eat all we can eat. And I don’t like the economic pressure the concept implies: eat enough to make it a bargain. It’s only a “good deal” if you’re a 350 pound linebacker. But the exception that proves this rule applies to Bouchon in Asheville http://www.ashevillebouchon.com/, where it’s all you can eat mussels on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Not only am I able to consume large quantities of mussels (after all, they’re so light and small), but I also get the chance to have mussels three ways: Parisienne (steamed in white wine, shallots, garlic, and thyme), Indochine (curry, lemon grass, and coconut milk) and Mediterranean (saffron, tomato, roasted garlic, white wine). As long as you only reorder mussels and not fries, you can enjoy the variety and avoid feeling like a 350 pound linebacker.

Mediterranean mussels take me back to Italy, where shellfish accompanies pasta. While in Rome, we had lunch at La Piazzetta in Trastevere, where I had pasta frutti di mer—King prawns and mussels in a light tomato sauce, served with a wide tubular pasta (mezzi paccheri?). Inspired by this dish, I cooked mussels for the first time just last month. I learned that you have to sort through your mussels carefully, discarding any that are wide open, broken, or that fail to close when you tap them. The best place to buy mussels in the area is Tom Robinson’s Seafood (behind Armadillo Grill). Harris Teeter has them occasionally. But for last Sunday ‘s meal I bought them at The Fresh Market (since Tom’s was closed). “What do they taste like?” the checker asked me. “The sea,” I said.

And here’s how we ate them . . .

Spaghetti with Mussels (Spaghetti con le Cozze)
from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 cup dry white wine

2 pounds small mussels, scrubbed and debearded

1 pound spaghetti

¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

*Bring water to boil in large pot and add salt

*In sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook about a minute. Add wine, raise heat and bring to boil. Add mussels. Cook, tossing until all the mussels have opened—about 4 minutes.

*Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente. Drain well.

*Add pasta to pan with mussels and cook over high heat for 1 minute. Add parsley, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes. Toss well and serve immediately.

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