The best part of a steaming pot of mussels just might be the broth. Garlic-flecked, wine-drenched and suffused with salty brine, it can be so good that sometimes I’ll forget about the mussels themselves. Instead, I’ll focus on mopping up the entire pool of liquid with whatever is in reach — chunks of bread, french fries, even the empty mussel shells if a spoon is out of reach (besides, the shells are more fun).
This pasta with mussels, tomatoes and fried capers gives that heady broth a higher purpose, elevating it from the byproduct of a cooking technique to the very heart of a dish. All it takes is little simmering, a bit of butter and some ripe summer tomatoes.
First, though, you need some mussels. These days, most of the ones you’ll find have been farmed and de-bearded for you. All they’ll need is a rinse, and they are good to go.
If you are lucky enough to find wild mussels — that you either gathered yourself off some rocky coast or bought — give them a gentle scrub under cold running water with a soft brush, then use a paring knife to scrape off the beards. The closer you can do this to when you cook them, the better.
You’ll also need some ripe-to-bursting summer tomatoes. Juicy is key; that sweet tomato water is just as important as the mussel broth. The tomato juice mellows the salt. Any leaky heirlooms or beefsteaks on your counter that are too soft for salad work well here.
Cube them, then sauté them with red-pepper flakes and garlic until the cubes start to collapse, but don’t entirely melt. They should maintain some integrity.
Because mussels are soft and tomatoes even softer, I wanted to add some texture to the dish. So I fried a combination of bread crumbs and capers until golden and crisp. The bread crumbs become almost meaty, while the capers turned into crunchy, tangy shards, like pickle-flavored potato chips but better. They’re a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of shellfish, tomatoes and butter.
Then it’s all tossed with al dente pasta while the sauce is still hot. This way, the pasta can absorb every last, glorious drop. It makes for a dining experience more elegant than slurping mussel broth out of a shell, and I think tastier, too.
Recipe: Pasta With Mussels, Tomatoes and Fried Capers
Makes: 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 1 hour
Salt, as needed
8 ounces calamarata, rigatoni or other short pasta
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons drained capers, patted dry
3 garlic cloves, 1 minced, 2 thinly sliced
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
Large pinch of red-pepper flakes
2 cups diced ripe, fresh tomatoes (2 medium tomatoes)
Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 large sprigs fresh oregano or marjoram
2 pounds mussels, rinsed and debearded
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup torn fresh basil or mint
1. Bring a medium pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until 2 minutes shy of al dente. Drain.
2. As pasta cooks, prepare the bread crumbs: In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add capers and minced garlic, and let sizzle for 30 seconds. Add bread crumbs, and fry until both crumbs and capers are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Scrape the crumbs and capers onto a plate, and season to taste with salt.
3. Add remaining tablespoon oil to pot and let it get hot. Add sliced garlic and red-pepper flakes, and let sizzle until garlic is golden at the edges, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until tomatoes have softened and start to lose their shape, about 6 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer tomato solids to a small bowl, add lemon juice to taste, and set aside.
4. Add wine and oregano to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add mussels, cover and cook over medium heat, shaking the pot occasionally, until mussels have opened and are cooked through, about 4 to 7 minutes. Transfer mussels with a slotted spoon to a large bowl, and let cool slightly. Discard any unopened mussels.
5. Simmer the mussels liquid until reduced to a glaze, about 5 minutes. Discard oregano sprigs.
6. When mussels are still hot (but not too hot to handle), pull meat from shells and add to the pot with reduced mussel broth (discard shells). Add pasta, tomatoes and butter, and toss well. Taste and add more lemon juice and salt if needed.
7. Transfer mixture to a shallow serving bowl and toss with herbs. Top with bread crumb-caper mixture and serve.