Friday, October 5, 2012

0 Recipe #326: Cozze alla Marinara con Spaghetti (Mussels Marinara with Spaghetti)

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Cozza alla marinara con spaghetti (mussels marinara with spaghetti) is one of my favorite Italian dishes. It's so simple to make, and yet, it has a marvelously rich, full flavor, which is mainly due to the white wine broth and the tomatoes (especially the concentrated flavor of the tomato paste) of the marinara sauce, and of course, the mussels themselves. The flavor of the marinara sauce is further enhanced by cooking the mussels in their shells. Plus, there are lots of textural contrasts, which always keeps the dining experience interesting.

Sure, there are a ton of mussels marinara recipes out there, but the major difference that sets this one apart from the rest of the bunch is the use of fresh herbs (including not just the usual pairing of fresh parsley and basil, but also fresh marjoram and oregano, for a broader array of Italian seasonings) and the addition of both onions and shallots, which adds a bit more flavor complexity to the dish. Not to mention, you'll find that this recipe tastes so much fresher and richer with these additions too. So, that being said, I sincerely hope you enjoy my recipe, which is one that I've made a zillion times before. It's a special family favorite, and if you make it, you'll hopefully be able to discover for yourself exactly why. :)

Cozze alla Marinara con Spaghetti (Mussels Marinara with Spaghetti)

2 lbs. fresh (black) mussels, scrubbed, rinsed, and debearded (about 83-85 small mussels)*
8-10 c. water, lightly salted and seasoned with a few drops of olive oil (for cooking pasta)
1 lb. (16 oz.) spaghetti (or other long or ribbon-cut pasta with a similar diameter)**
2 large lemons, cut into wedges (for garnish)
1/2 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded or shaved
1/2 c. basil, tightly packed and roughly torn into small pieces (for garnish)

Marinara sauce:
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c. yellow onion, peeled and diced (about 1/4 medium-sized onion)
1/4 c. shallots, peeled and minced
1 1/2 Tbsp. garlic, peeled and finely minced (about 3 large cloves)
1 large bay leaf (preferably fresh, if available)
2 c. good dry white wine (added 1 c. at a time) (I used Orvieto but Chardonnay would also work)
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 c. vine-ripened tomatoes, diced (about 4 small tomatoes)
1/4 c. (4 Tbsp.) tomato paste
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. red chili pepper flakes
2 Tbsp. fresh oregano, tightly packed and finely minced
1 Tbsp. fresh marjoram, tightly packed and finely minced
2 Tbsp. fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, tightly packed and finely minced
2 Tbsp. fresh basil, tightly packed and roughly torn into small pieces

Directions: Bring a large pot of (about 8-10 c.) water, one that's been lightly salted and seasoned with a few drops of olive oil, to a roiling boil. (Since there's a lot of water to boil, which will take a while, this is typically when I will open the cans of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste with a can-opener and also prep the herbs and put them into a bowl, etc.) Add pasta and cook according to package instruction until al dente (i.e., Barilla spaghetti takes 10 minutes to cook until al dente), drain into a colander, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Divide pasta into equal portions, place into large, deep bowls, with plates underneath, and set aside.

Next, heat olive oil on medium-high heat in a large (5-6 qt.) sauce pot until it sizzles and glistens. Reduce heat to low and then sauté onions, shallots, and garlic until tender, adding the bay leaf on top, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Deglaze pan with 1 c. wine. Then stir in crushed tomatoes, vine-ripened tomatoes, and tomato paste until tomato paste has been adequately broken up and the mixture has been thoroughly blended. Cook for about another 5 minutes and continue to stir on occasion to keep sauce from sticking to the bottom and burning. Next, add remaining cup of wine and turn up heat to high. Season with salt, black pepper, and red chili pepper flakes. When the broth has come to a boil, add fresh herbs in the following order -- first the oregano, followed by the marjoram, parsley, and basil -- so that the hardier herbs (i.e., the oregano and marjoram) cook a few bit longer. Then immediately following, add mussels and then quickly cover with a tight-fitting lid. Allow mussels to steam for exactly 5 minutes. Set your kitchen timer, so that you don't forget about them. (It's very important to cook them for exactly 5 minutes; any longer and the mussels will overcook and frankly, taste quite unpleasant.)

Immediately after the timer goes off, carefully remove lid while wearing heat-proof (i.e., silicone) oven mitts that fully cover your hands and wrists, while positioning the rest of your body a good distance away from the rising steam. Remove pot from heat and discard any unopened mussels.* Using a slotted spoon, scoop them into the large bowls containing the pasta, about 10-11 mussels per person. Pour equal amounts of sauce over the top of each bowl. Sprinkle each portion with 1 Tbsp. cheese and 1 Tbsp. basil, garnish each plate with a lemon wedge, and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings as a main course and 10-12 servings as an appetizer.

Alternate Preparation(s): Instead of pasta, this dish can be served with bruschetta or garlic bread, which you can use for dipping into the sauce or to hoist the mussels and sauce and scoop it into your mouth. :) IMHO, eating pasta and bread is a little much, in terms of the starch (and calorie) factor, unless you're running ultras or doing some other extremely strenuous, zillion calorie-burning sport, in which case, go for it. :) I'm not here to tell you how to manage your food intake, as everyone has different preferences and caloric needs. Well, that is, unless you request my professional services in this area. :) However, as someone who's writing these recipes from a nutritional perspective, I'd personally advocate a healthy balance of different types of foods and nutrients. This is why, when I write entrée recipes, the assumption is that these dishes will be accompanied by other foods like a vegetable side dish or vegetable-centric appetizer. :)

Please note that if you'll be skipping the starch component altogether, one serving will now equal 20-21 mussels, versus 10-11.

Shortcuts: If you wish, you can also prep and cook the ingredients for the sauce -- minus the fresh herbs -- a few days in advance. When you're ready to cook the mussels, just bring the marinara sauce to a boil, then add the fresh, finely minced herbs, followed by the mussels, cover with a tightly fitting lid, and cook for the requisite 5 minutes.

Chef's Notes: This section is admittedly a bit long. So, I've broken it into sections, so you can use it as a guide and go directly to the section you'd like to read. Or, feel free to read the whole thing from start to finish. There's a lot of useful information in here, so it's up to you. If nothing else, I strongly recommend that you read the first section immediately below entitled, "health and safety advisory." :) If you've never prepared mussels before, then please read this section, plus the section entitled, "how to prepare mussels."

*Health & safety advisory: IMPORTANT: For health and safety reasons, mussels should always be alive before they're cooked. Otherwise, you might become severely ill. This is why it's important to only use closed mussels. However, after having said that, please be aware that sometimes the open ones are still alive and just need a little bit of prodding to get them to "wake up" and close again. So if any open while you're preparing them (they will often open when rinsed -- they like the water :) ), just give them a few gentle taps with the back of a knife (i.e., the blunt edge) or a spoon to see if they close. If not, discard them. Those ones are most definitely dead. :) Also discard any ones with broken shells.

However, after cooking, there are different recommendations for what people should do with the mussels that haven't opened after they've been cook. The age-old, traditional wisdom has been to discard the closed mussels. However, there are some scientists who now claim that this is total BS. :) In truth, I've eaten ones that were only open just a wee bit and have been just fine. Of course, I should now probably make a disclaimer that I'm not personally liable for anyone else's health or state of being should anyone follow that course of action. :) On that note, I've never eaten the ones that've been completely sealed shut either. So, if anyone has done this and lived to tell the tale, then feel free to comment on this post to let me know. :)

How to prepare musselsBefore tossing mussels into the pot, be sure to first scrub and rinse them to remove any debris or barnacles, and also to debeard them. When rinsing, it's important to run the tap over the crevices of the mussels and shake them out a bit while they're under the water, to remove any mud or other debris. No one wants to eat muddy mussels; it's really not an experience you'll want to remember. ;) Also be sure to drain the water from them when you're done. To remove any barnacles or other surface matter, simply scrape them with the back of a butter knife until they detach.

At this point, you might be wondering, "So what exactly is the mussel's 'beard,' what does it look like, and most importantly, how do I remove it?" Well, if you examine the crevice where the top and bottom shells meet, you'll see a bunch of little protruding brown threads; this is what's commonly called the "beard." (Marine biologists will typically refer to it as the byssus (or the byssal threads.) It's also possible to buy mussels that've already been debearded, so you might not have to do this part. However, just in case you do, here's how to debeard them: Firmly grip the mussel in one hand while tugging on the beard with the other. (This works best if you pinch the beard between your thumb and index finger.) Slide the beard along the opening, from side to side, until it gives. Try to remove as much of the beard as possible, but if there are still a few remaining threads you can't reach, don't worry about it too much. This part of the mussel isn't exactly fantastic tasting, but it's not harmful either.

**Selecting pasta: If you are serving mussels in their shell, which makes a nice presentation, be sure to use a long, "sturdy" pasta that's at least 1/16" in diameter (i.e., spaghetti) but no more than 1/4." Good choices include spaghettilinguine, or fusilli lunghi bucati. Thin, long pastas like spaghettinicapellini, or capellini d'angelo (angel hair pasta, which is an even thinner form of capellini) are too flimsy, while wide noodles like pappardelle and most types of fettuccine are just too thick. Texture is important, so choosing the right size pasta really does help to complement the eating experience.

I know there are a lot of recipes out there on the ole' "interwebs" that pair mussels in their shell with capellini or fettuccine, and OK, sure, it's a matter of personal preference. However, I've done a lot of experimenting with this recipe, in terms of pairing it with various pasta types, which is why I recommend doing the above when serving this dish with the mussels in their shell. :) So, basically what I'm saying here is to disregard my recommendation at your own peril. Lol.

Recipe yield and storage of leftovers: I realize that this recipe makes a lot of mussels. Normally, I'd create a recipe for 4 servings, since this is probably the average size of most families (at least in the States), but the thing is that, where we live, fresh mussels are typically sold in a pre-packaged 2 lb. bag. I guess I could make half the bag and use the rest for some other mussels dish. However, what I often do instead is make the whole thing, cooking only 2 servings of pasta for that night's dinner, and then just refrigerate 2 more servings for another dinner later in the week, and then freeze the rest. That way, I've got several nights of dinner all set. It's practical and efficient, especially if you're as busy as me, and well, in truth, maybe also a little bit lazy, but in a good way. :) At any rate, cooked mussels freeze well, so it's easy enough to defrost them for future dinners. In this case, you'll probably want to remove the cooked mussels from their shells before putting them into the freezer, so that it's easier and quicker to defrost and serve them.

IMPORTANT: Whatever you do, don't put fresh, uncooked mussels into the freezer, because you'll most likely kill them and then they won't open when it's time to cook them. And, in case you were wondering, I'm not just pulling this out of my..., er, well, you get the idea. :) This is what they'd teach you at culinary school as well. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably hasn't gotten around to defrosting them yet. ;)

Or, if you prefer, just halve (or quarter) the recipe for a smaller yield, and use the remaining 1 lb. of mussels to make another dish like Moules Provençales (Mussels Provençal), etc. At some point in the future, I'll be creating more mussels dishes, so there'll be a few more recipe selections here from which to choose, including a few creative and unexpected ones that don't rely on the typical "tomatoes and wine" type of preparation, so be on the lookout for those as well.

Nutritional Information: You'll be happy to know that, in addition to being delicious, mussels are high in protein but low in fat and calories (i.e., per 3 oz., they contain 1.9g fat, 0.4g of which is saturated fat, and 70 calories, respectively), which is a good thing, especially if you'll be pairing it with spaghetti. Lol. Compare that to the same amount of lean sirloin, which contains 160 calories and 2.1g of saturated fat, although the beef selection is higher in protein. :)

They are a decent source of Vitamin B12 as well as other B vitamins (especially folate), vitamin C, selenium, phosphorus, manganese, iron, and zinc. They are also rich in Omega-3's. Pretty cool, eh? All of this nutritious yumminess makes the enjoyment factor even greater. :)

Health Benefits: Eating mussels can also help you to pump up your energy levels and elevate your mood. In fact, they have been known to have natural anti-depressant properties. Here's why: The vitamin B12 they contain plays an important role in the body's metabolism. In particular, they help facilitate chemical reactions (via molecules called cofactors, which are most commonly enzymes), which in turn, contribute to energy production, as well as fatty acid synthesis and DNA synthesis and regulation. More specifically, B12 vitamins are involved in many methylation reactions in the body. For example, B12 plays a vital role in DNA methylation, an essential biochemical process that regulates gene expression patterning in cells (i.e., expressing or suppressing genes) and plays an essential part in the normal development of higher organisms. Notably, DNA methylation is involved in the suppression of viral gene expression and in the development of almost all types of cancer.

B12 is also essential to the proper functioning of the brain and nervous system. It helps repair damaged nerves and contributes to the manufacture of important neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, and sleep patterns, while dopamine regulates movement and how we experience pleasure. So, now you might be able to see why the B12 in mussels might contribute towards making you feel good. :)

Conversely, consider that vitamin B12 deficiencies have been known to cause fatigue, depression, and a variety of other health issues. So, if you've got enough B12, you're probably more likely to be riding on the "happy train." :)

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