If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then there are some chefs out there who should be blushing. I am forever copying recipes - or at least attempting to. Whether its fonduta or the watercress soup or overly ambitious dishes like cornish hens (don't ask how that turned out). Sometimes I surprise myself; sometimes I realize that people pay others to prepare their food for a reason.
One thing I have always enjoyed in restaurants is mussels. I first tried them while in Seattle, at a restaurant near the famous fish-throwing market. The seafood there practically jumps out of the ocean, through the window and onto your plate. They were tender and salty and served in a spicy cream sauce, and I yammered about them to everyone when I returned home. Flash forward about five years, to my New Year's Eve dinner in Youngstown where I was served another dish of mussels in a spicy red sauce. I complimented the chefs until I think they were sick of me. I've even already written about them in a column for Sunday's Zone page - that's a lot of press for a mollusk.
I am not a big seafood person; shrimp does not hold any special place for me. But mussels and clams have always been enjoyable for me, and there are so many ways to prepare them. I tried to find some recipes that approximated the dishes I have enjoyed thusfar, and attempt to come close to the flavors created in them.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Sarah Sepanek
Mussels in spicy red sauce are shown on a bed of linguine.
I started with a recipe from Emeril, because the picture looked close to the plate that frequently visited my culinary dreams. I had most of the ingredients, however, he required a Dutch oven that I did not possess. Humpf. But it seemed as if I could create the same effect using simpler pots and pans. After checking several other mussel recipes on Cooks.com and other websites, it seemed as if the basic ingredients were tomatoes, olive oil, white wine, red pepper flakes, cream, garlic, onion and spices. Check, check and check. A good crusty bread and some pasta completes the dish.
But where does one buy mussels? Galaxy Seafood in Youngstown has them, as does the grocery store when in season. They can also be bought frozen in the shell, but I feared tainting my tender mussel memories if I went that route. They are pretty affordable and easy to prepare.
The sauce was spicy, smooth and the same consistency as the dishes I had. The heat can be turned up or down to suit your taste. I made some linguine to serve with the mussels, and the sauce also went well with the pasta.
2 pounds fresh mussels in the shell or frozen
1 cup water
Thoroughly clean mussels, then place in medium saucepan. Add 1 cup water, then heat until boiling. Lower heat and simmer until mussels are opened, about 5 minutes. Drain water through strainer.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons crushed red peppers
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon sea salt
Sautee garlic in olive oil over medium heat. Then add tomatoes, white wine, red pepper, oregano and salt. Bring to boil and then add cream and simmer, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir often. Serve mussels with spaghetti or linguine, pouring sauce over top.
As with any seafood, there is trepidation about sending everyone to the emergency room with food poisoning, but almost 24 hours later, I'm still here with nary a problem.
Did I come close to the dishes I remembered so fondly? Pretty much. Am I still going to pursue the chef who made my New Year's mussels and command he not leave this mortal coil before he gives me that recipe? You bet.