I wish I could say I've never been a picky eater, but if we're being honest I should confess: when I was a kid my salads were more Hidden Valley Ranch and from-a-box croutons than vegetables. I didn't like raw tomatoes until at least the tail end of high school. Ham? No thank you. Spicy food? Mmm, I'll pass. I grew up in Maine, but it was years before I would even consider a lobster. And nothing - I mean nothing - could get me to eat a mollusk. Clams, oysters, the whole phylum was just skeeved me out. (BTW, Mom, sorry if that was annoying for you. I'll make it up to you in preserves and pickles this year, ok?)
While I still don't like ham (or watermelon, ew), I've recently come around to the allure of shellfish. I've eaten an oyster or two. I've sampled a clam. And then last winter I went out to dinner with my parents to one of Portland's best restaurants, five fifty-five, and I tasted the mussels my mom had ordered. It really was like a light bulb went off! They were smokey and briny and when you dipped the bread in the broth it just melted into a little seafood implosion on your tongue. I was SOLD.
But for the last year, mussels were a food I only ordered in restaurants, not something I cooked at home. The scrubbing, and the how would I know if they were dead, and the what if I gave us food poisoning with dead mussels!, it was just too much. But then I saw Mark Bittman's minimalist column in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and I could put it off no longer. Mussels, beans, AND pasta? These are a few of my faaaavorite thiiiings... plus the bitter mustard greens that were wilting in the fridge from what turned out to be our last CSA pickup of the year (that rant coming later, I assure you). And mussels are only $2.49 a pound! My friends, this is a keeper.
Pasta with Mussels, Beans and Greens
adapted from Mark Bittman
If you don't like bitter greens, by all means leave them out and use the parsley called for in the original recipe. If you like greens but don't like bitter, use swiss chard or kale or something more mild than the totally insane-in-a-good-way mustard greens. While you're cleaning the mussels, discard those with cracked shells, or those that don't close when you tap them a couple of times. Once they're cooked, discard mussels that HAVEN'T opened.
2 lbs mussels, scrubbed well
1 large bunch bitter greens such as mustard, washed and chopped
1 15 oz can white beans such as cannelini
1/2 lb penne, rigatoni, or ziti
1/4 - 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
Put the clean mussels in a large pot, cover with a tight fitting lid, and turn the heat to medium-high. You can add a splash of water if you like, but the mussels will let out enough liquid to steam themselves. When you hear the liquid bubbling, turn the heat to medium low and give the pot a shake every 10 seconds or so. When the mussels open up, they're done, probably 3-5 minutes. Shell most of them but leave a few in the shell for presentation if you like. Strain the liquid left in the pot (or just pour it out slowly leaving the gunk at the bottom).
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the salted water, but take it out while it's still firm, it'll cook more in the pan with everything else. (Come to think of it you could even cook it ahead of time and use the same pot for the mussels.)
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat, add the 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and heat 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the chopped greens. They should wilt quickly, but they'll go faster if you cover the pot for a minute or two. When there's room in the skillet, add the pasta, white beans, mussels, mussel cooking liquid and a splash of white wine (2 Tbsp or so). Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper. When everything is warmed through, it's ready to serve, with some good bread for sopping and a glass of that white wine.