Emiko Davies delves into heirloom family recipes from the port city of Taranto, in Italy’s southern heel of Puglia, in her new book Tortellini at Midnight.
“This is one of those dishes that requires love and time to prepare – you may want to enlist the help of others with the stuffing part, distribute glasses of wine and enjoy a good chat while you tie each mussel shell,” says Davies. “Like polpette and many other dishes of Puglia’s cucina povera tradition, the work that goes into this beautiful meal can cover both a first and second course – the rich tomato sauce, infused with the sea flavour of the mussels, is used to dress pasta for the first course, while the mussels are eaten separately, as the main course.” Pictured p117.
1 kg mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
125 ml dry white wine
60 ml (¼ cup) olive oil
2 garlic cloves
400 gm canned peeled or chopped tomatoes
100 gm day-old or stale country bread, crusts removed and coarsely chopped
125 ml (½ cup) milk
200 gm (1½ cups) fresh breadcrumbs 100 gm pecorino or parmesan, grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup (loosely packed)
flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 Discard any mussels that are cracked or open and won’t close when gently tapped. To open the mussels, heat them in a wide pan with the wine over a high heat. Cover, and shake the pan occasionally to help the mussels move around (the ones on the bottom will find it harder to open fully than the ones on top). After about 1-2 minutes, check them and, with a pair of tongs, remove the mussels, one by one, as they open and transfer them to a large bowl. Continue until all the mussels have opened (any that are still tightly shut can be discarded). Strain the mussel liquid left in the pan – either use a very fine-mesh sieve or a regular sieve lined with a paper towel and set over a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2 In the same large pan, gently infuse the oil with one of the garlic cloves (smashed with the side of a large knife) over a low heat. Infuse gently for about 5 minutes, or until fragrant and softened. Add the tomatoes and about 125ml water, along with roughly half of the reserved mussel liquid. Increase the heat to medium and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, then set aside. Season to taste. 3 For the stuffing, soak the stale bread in the milk and finely chop the other garlic clove. Combine the garlic with the fresh breadcrumbs, pecorino, egg and parsley. Pour the rest of the mussel liquid over the top and season with pepper. Squeeze any excess liquid from the milk-soaked bread and crumble it in. The stuffing should come together and stay together when you squeeze a spoonful of it in your hand; if it’s too crumbly, you can add a bit of the milk that the bread was soaking in. 4 Take a spoonful of the filling, squeeze it in your hand to make it compact, then fill an opened mussel shell and wrap a short piece of kitchen string around it tightly to keep it closed. Repeat with the rest of the mussels.
5 Place the stuffed mussels in the pot of tomato sauce and top up with some extra water to ensure the mussels are submerged. Cover, and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Try not to stir the pot too much; if the mussels haven’t been tied tightly enough, you risk them opening. Simmer for 15 minutes.
6 Serve the mussels with a sharp knife to cut the strings (alternatively, cut them all off before serving) and provide finger bowls to clean fingers.
This extract from Tortellini at Midnight and Other Heirloom Family Recipes from Tarantoto Turin to Tuscany by Emiko Davies with photography by Lauren Bamford and Emiko Davies (Hardie Grant Books, hbk, $52) has been reproduced with minor GT style changes.