Friday, October 18, 2013

Of Mussels and Marinara...

"Comfort food."  Those two words illicit all sorts of marvelous images for different people.  Comfort food can be as complex as a casserole full of Lobster Mac-n-cheese, or as simple as a bowl of chicken soup.  For Italians, most comfort food starts with a good Marinara sauce.  One of my favorite Italian comfort foods is "Mussels Fra Diavolo," or Mussels in a spicy red sauce!  A good marinara sauce should balance the acidic tartness of tomatoes with the sweetness of diced carrots and onions.  Building on the sauce, any spicy heat that is added should help complement something subtle, like the lusty faint aroma of the ocean that you get from fresh Mussel liquor... :)

You will need:

The Best Red Sauce Ever:
  • 2 big cans (36oz) whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup good olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 entire head of garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 3/4lb of sweet onions (1 large onion) diced
  • 1/2lb carrots finely diced
  • 1.5 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 6oz can tomato paste
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
 Ingredients to Turn the Best Red Sauce into the Best Mussel Dish Ever:
  • 6 Cloves crushed garlic
  • 2-3 Teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 Dried Chipotle Peppers, cut in half or fourths
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 Cups of the Best Red Sauce Ever
  • 3lbs Medium Sized Mussels, scrubbed, and de-bearded 
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
This red sauce is a great building block to making all sorts of things. Personally, I think it's almost too good to just ladle over pasta, it should be sopped up and eaten with some great bread, and your plate should be shiny clean when you're done!  To get the most out of the sauce, make sure you extract as much sugar out of the onions and carrots as you can; don't be afraid to brown the heck out of them!  Break out your biggest pot or dutch-oven and be prepared to store the bulk of the sauce in stainless plastic-ware or mason jars.

Sauce first!  Keep the Mussels on ice.  Seriously, as soon as you buy your Mussels, get them into a crushed ice bath and store them in your refrigerator.  You want to make sure you discard any that are already open, as they're dead and they'll just stink up the works.  Look for Mussels that are heavy for their size and that are sealed as tightly as little black rocks. 

Now, cook the sauce!  Dump the cans of tomatoes into a clean bowl, wash your hands and crush the bowl of tomatoes into a bowl of tomato mush!  This is a great job for the kids, if you can convince them NOT to make a mess!  In your big pot, heat the oil over medium high heat until it's good and hot, then add the onions and carrots.  Stir them together, then add the garlic and bay leaves.  Cook and stir until they're well caramelized and nice and brown (15 minutes or so).  Add the tomatoes, their juice, 1.5 cups of hot water, the tomato paste, oregano, salt & pepper.  Stir some more and let it bubble and simmer until it reduces by a couple of inches.

Keep two cups of the sauce for your Mussels and store the rest in an airtight plastic container (or mason jars).

Let's cook the Mussels!  With 2 cups of your new sauce in your big pot, bring it to a nice simmering bubble and add the additional Garlic, White Wine, Chipotle Peppers, and Red Pepper Flakes.  Simmer this mixture, just below a boil, for about 20 minutes.  This will rehydrate the Chipotles and allow the Wine to break out some alcohol soluble flavors from the rest of the dish.

Moments before serving time, drain your Mussels and add them to the 2 cups of sauce you have in your pot!

Let them settle into the sauce with it boiling and bubbling around them.  Replace the lid and leave the Mussels alone for about 5 minutes.  Take the lid away and stir everything together for another 3 or 4 minutes.  The Mussels will be done when they're fully opened and a little bit firm.  This should take less than 10 minutes of total cooking time.

Remove from the heat, garnish with the Parsley, and serve!

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