Showing Some Mussel

I never had mussels growing up. Perhaps my parents didn't like them – I imagine if they had, we would have been exposed to them.

But when I was just out of college and playing principal bass for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, I went to Citone's - a small 'mom & pop' Italian restaurant - and something made me order the spaghetti with mussels in a spicy marinara sauce. It was love at first bite.

Really good mussels are sweet and juicy and, unlike clams, don't have the same grit and sand issues. Generally most of the mussels we see these days are rope cultivated, which makes them a cinch to prepare (not so much debearding and scrubbing).

When Mark and I traveled to Brussels - famous for their «moules frites,» we somehow stumbled into one of the most famous of places to get mussels: Chez Léon. I look at their site and, while it looks a bit touristy, I must say I have never had mussels to equal theirs.

When we moved to Maine, we ate them quite often as they were readily available at Sue's Seafood, our local seafood store. We steamed them with shallots, herbs and wine ... or added cream and saffron for a wonderful soup-like dish ... or steeped them in curry, to which we added some mayonnaise for chilled mussels on the half shell. All delicious.

But, to this day, my favorite way to eat them is the way I first tried them - in a spicy tomato sauce over spaghetti. Not only is it delicious, it is also really low in calories and fat.

The sauce is a fairly authentic version of one I learned from an Italian cooking show - Avventura, a Canadian production that lasted but a season on our PBS station. The only thing I have done to change the sauce is reduce the fat used in the very beginning. The key to this sauce is its simplicity - tomatoes, onion, basil and hot pepper flakes.

At this moment, I am reminded of a 1970s commercial for Ragù Spaghetti Sauce. Anna Maria Alberghetti, the well-known opera singer from Le Marche, Italy, is standing at her kitchen counter over a pot of simmering sauce. She opens, "My name is Anna Maria Alberghetti and I am here to talk to you about your spaghetti sauce."

Well, it is my turn today to talk to you about spaghetti sauce and my advice is to forgo any bottle or jarred sauce and make your own. (I don't consider it cheating to use canned tomatoes...) It is quite easy it will taste better than anything from a jar. Just add a few steamed mussels and you have it made!

Buon appetito!

- David

Spaghetti with Mussels Marinara

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
1 28-ounce can Italian puréed tomatoes
1 small onion or 1 large shallot, peeled and quartered
10 basil leaves, cut into strips
12 ounces dried spaghetti
1/2 cup white wine
2 pounds cultivated mussels, scrubbed and debearded

Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the pepper flakes. Cook 30 seconds and then add the puréed tomatoes, the onion quarters and about 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer, partially cover and cook for 20 minutes. (Tomatoes will spatter!) Add the sliced basil leaves, stir well and cook for 10 more minutes. Adjust seasoning and keep warm.

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook spaghetti until al dente - about 10-11 minutes.

While pasta is cooking, bring wine to a boil in a large pot. Discard any mussels that are broken or open. Add the remaining mussels and cover tightly, shaking the pan every once in a while. After about 4 minutes, the mussels should all be open. Discard any that didn't open. Set aside and keep warm.

Drain spaghetti and place in a large bowl. Add sauce to coat and divide spaghetti among 4 pasta bowls. Divide mussels among the bowls and serve immediately. (Discard cooking wine or freeze to add to homemade fish stock.)

Serves 4.


  1. I never consider it cheating when cracking open a tin of tomatoes. They're one of my pantry staples, as they should be everybody's. I adore mussels and much like you, never really ate them when I was younger. I think the first time I tried mussels was the tinned smoked variety when I was a teen, something I still don't mind eating occasionally. Nothing beats the real thing, however. Steamed, in a pasta sauce, any which way! Great recipe David!

  2. hmmm maybe I should venture out of my comfort zone and try these???

  3. I just love your cupid spoon and the spaghetti wooden thing to measure portions! A great marinara is something to cherish for life and the simpler the recipe the better. About mussels, I hate fish and shellfish, but here and in Uruguay, mussels with garlic, parsley and white wine are consumed by tons during summer. My ex-hubby declared his absolute favorite ever some mussels he ate in Belgium too.

  4. John - thanks! Good canned tomatoes are often so much better than the pale, orange styrofoam varieties available in most supermarkets year round. When good fresh tomatoes are available, though, they can't be beat!

    Jill - yes, you should break out of your comfort zone for these! You won't regret it!

    Paula - I didn't know the you weren't a fish and shellfish fan! But the marinara makes up for it - so simple and flavorful! My little set of Cupid measuring spoons has been a treasure for years - I am glad o like them!

  5. I have a shelf dedicated to tinned tomatoes. I think it is so important to know how to make a basic tomato sauce - I totally agree that it tastes better than the jar which is full of preservatives!
    Now to the mussels, those little parcels of protein! I love them so much, especially in Summer! Love this!

  6. As you know, we live across from a seafood store... And it has great mussels, cultivated. I think I will be walking over to get some soon as this recipe looks delicious. I didn't grow up eating mussels either but I'm making up for it now! Thanks for another great recipe... And story!

  7. Anna - I love that you have an entire shelf for your tomatoes! I am going to need to reconfigure my pantry!

    Susan - I am looking forward to walking across the street to get some good seafood for Friday night!

  8. MMMMMMMMM!!! I love mussels, (and remember AnnaMaria too!) - I usually just steam in shallots, white wine, garlic and fennel at home and order the mussels marinara at my favorite italian place (Mama's, in Oakdale out on the Isle of Long). You've inspired me to make a little Mama's in Chelsea tonight!

  9. thanks for sharing.


Thank you for taking the time to leave me a note - I really appreciate hearing from you and welcome any ideas you may have for future posts, too. Happy Cooking!

If you would like to receive follow-up comments, simply click the "Subscribe by E-mail" link to the right of the "Publish" and "Preview" buttons.