This dish calls for a few humble ingredients and a little bit of extra preparation but results in a hearty and beautiful meal that can cover both first and second course. The mussels are steamed open, the liquid reserved to add to a rich tomato sauce. The opened mussels are then stuffed with a breadcrumb and cheese mixture, closed with kitchen string and cooked in the tomato sauce. The mussels, sandwiched in their shells with the breadcrumb mixture, can be separately, while the tomato sauce – infused with the flavour of the mussels – is served with pasta as the first course or perhaps the next day.
You can, of course, also eat this as one meal – just the mussels, mopped up in their tomato sauce. No bread necessary of course, except to clean the plate. Be prepared to get your fingers dirty as you have to cut the string (a sharp knife at the table is handy for this), then pry the shells back open again, but the treasure inside is worth it. Keep a finger dipping bowl nearby.
By the way – the rule of no cheese with seafood that is rigidly applied throughout most of the country is broken in Puglia. Pecorino and shellfish go hand in hand in many dishes here. —Emiko
(1 kilogram) live mussels in their shells, cleaned of their beards and any grit
14-ounce (400 grams) can of tomatoes (chopped or peeled)
(200 grams) dried breadcrumbs
3 1/2 ounces
(100 grams) stale bread, soaked in a little milk until soft
Open the cleaned mussels by steaming them in a large, covered pot. Set aside the liquid for use in the tomato sauce.
In a large pot, prepare the tomato sauce by gently sauteeing one of the garlic cloves, smashed or sliced, in some olive oil until aromatic and soft. Add the can of tomato plus a splash of water and the liquid from the mussels. Turn up the heat until it comes to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes or until reduced slightly then take off the heat, add the parsley and set aside.
Prepare the stuffing mixture by combining the other garlic clove, chopped finely, the breadcrumbs, the stale bread (squeezed of excess liquid and crumbled into the bowl), the pecorino and eggs. It shouldn't be too solid, but rather a wet mixture. You can add a bit of water to loosen if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.
Fill the opened mussel shells with a spoonful of mixture, then close them, wrapping some kitchen string around them to keep them shut. Once they are all filled, add them to the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Make sure you are using a pot large enough to fit the mussels and deep enough to that the mussels are all submerged in the sauce (if needed, top up with water). Cook the mussels again for about 15 minutes.
Serve as is, with a sharp knife to cut the strings, or remove the mussels from the sauce and serve the sauce with pasta and the mussels separately.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.