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Pasta with Beans and Mussels

September 16, 2009
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This is (tragically) the last post documenting the fantabulous seafood we picked up at the fish market over the weekend.  It is also proof that sometimes ugly food tastes the best!

Last weekend I saw Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times about mussels, beans and pasta (I even watched the video…) and I knew I had to try it.  Serendipitously, we went to the fish market and discovered that not only is a bag of live mussels super-cheap, but they get cheaper the more bags you buy. 

We carted our mussels home and, never having bought raw mussel before, we had to figure out what to do with them.  Here’s where I offer some advice: Do Not Do What I Did.  First I’ll tell you what I did and then I’ll tell you what you should do.  Knowing is half the battle, after all. 

I’ll apologize now for the rest of this post, since it is a bit verbose and long-winded.  I do, however, highly recommend that you read the paragraph about “What You Should Do If You Have Live Mussels,” particularly if you plan on making this recipe.

DSC_0015When we got home, not being able to contain my excitement, I immediately opened the bag and dumped the mussels into a bowl and started tapping the open ones to see if they were alive or dead.  If they are slightly open, you tap them gently and if they are alive they will close, and if they’re dead they stay open.  After a good 10 minutes spent on google coming to a consensus as to what to do, we put them in a 9×13 inch pan, covered them with a damp rag and set them in the fridge.  I “checked on them” a couple of hours later, which resulted in what could best be described as panicked gasping and shrieking.  The boyf came running, thinking that something tragic had happened as I wallowed in the fact that I’d accidentally killed all the mussels.  Turns out I hadn’t.  They were just all a little open now that they were comfy in the cold fridge under a damp towel.  At that point I resolved to leave them well enough alone.

We got them on a Saturday and I was going to cook with them on Monday, so that meant they would have lived in the fridge for two days.  Sunday came around and I decided to just cook the mussels then, since I was worried that I was slowly, but surely, killing them off the longer they stayed in the fridge.  I took them out of the fridge, tapping the open ones and setting those that didn’t close to the side (a process that took probably 15 minutes).  I set a lotof mussels aside (probably about 20), thinking they were dead.  I revisited my “dead” pile and it turned out they were just sleepy (or something), as many of them had closed up.  I put all the closed ones in a pan full of water so they could soak, at which point I discovered that if a mussel is alive, but cracked open a little, and you put it in water, it immediately closes up.  Upon making this discovery, I put the “dead” mussels in the water and really only like five were truly dead.  Interesting.

That is how we arrived to “What You Should Do If You Have Live Mussels” (and what I’ll do next time I venture into the world of live bivalves).  First, once the mussels arrive to their final destination (i.e. you kitchen) before cooking, put all mussels in a dish, cover with a damp cloth and place in the refrigerator.  The more you bother them, the more likely they are to die.  It’s sad, but true.  A couple of hours before you plan on cooking them, fill the dish with water so they mussels will purge sand and other gunk.  Take the mussels out of the bowl one by one prior to cooking them, throwing away those that are not closed.  That’s it.  That’s all there is.  All that time I spent tapping them was completely useless, and probably even hastened the premature death of some of the mussels.  Oops.

Okay.  Before you cook mussels you have to remove their beards.  Not like facial hair, but rather the stringy stuff (usually with shells and other things stuck in it) sticking out of the mussel’s shell.  It’s easier to do before cooking than after. 


Bearded bivalve.

You remove the beard by giving it a sharp yank towards the hinged part of the shell.  Otherwise you’ll kill the mussel.  Let’s be honest, you’ll kill it eventually, but you don’t want to do that quite yet.  Don’t worry if you don’t get all the beards before cooking, since you can do it afterwards too.


This is what they should look like after being steamed.  You can actually see the beard on this mussel– it’s the black stuff sticking out of the middle. 

You’ll want to conserve the juice at the bottom of the pan because it’s what gives the dish a lot of its mussely flavor.  


You can see that the grossness settled to the bottom.  You don’t want to pour that part into your sauce– just the murky yellow stuff at the top. 


This is what was left in the glass after adding the good stuff to the sauce. 

We used some funky Italian pasta that my sister sent rather than the prescribed rigatoni since, well, that was what we had.  Since I’d taken care of the mussels the day before, the dish came together really quickly, in maybe 15 minutes.  It really was as easy as it looked in the video!


Present also for this meal were many citronella candles, our futile attempt at warding off the mosquitoes.  At least I didn’t get bit on the forehead this time.

DSC_0014Pasta e fagioli con le cozze (Pasta with Beans and Mussels)

(From The New York Times)

3 pounds mussels, well washed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 pound rigatoni or other cut pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for drizzling

2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste

1 cup cooked cannellini or borlotti beans, drained

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1 cup chopped fresh parsley.

Put mussels in a large pot with a lid. Cover, turn heat to medium-high and when you hear the mussel liquid boiling, reduce heat to maintain a steady bubble; you will hear it and see steam escaping. Shake pot now and then; when mussels open, remove them (the cooking process takes no more than 4 or 5 minutes, if that). Let cool slightly and shuck, reserving cooking liquid. When liquid has cooled, strain it.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil, cook pasta until not quite done (figure about 2 minutes short of where you would usually cook it), drain and set aside.

Put oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; add garlic and chili flakes and cook for about 1 minute. Add beans, wine, pasta and mussels; reduce heat to medium-low and stir to combine. Add as much reserved mussel liquid as mixture can accommodate without becoming too soupy. Cook, stirring gently, until pasta is fully cooked and everything is warmed through; add more liquid if you like. Adjust seasoning as needed, drizzle with a bit more olive oil if you like, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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