Fried cheese curds
Root beer float
8-ounce ‘gourmet’ burger with bacon, grilled mushrooms, onions and cheese
Burnt almond torte
Fried whitefish sandwich topped with creamy coleslaw
Trio of sliders (Korean beef, corned beef, fried chicken) with a side of fries
Creamy morel bisque (emphasis on the cream)
Mackinac Island fudge
That, my friends, is a partial list of gustatory indulgences to which I succumbed these last couple of weeks on vacation. It did not help that this was a driving vacation and, other than a leisurely 8-mile bike ride around the periphery of Mackinac Island, I spent most of my time seated ~ in a car or at a table.
By the time we rolled up our driveway the other evening I couldn’t wait to stop eating.
But I also couldn’t wait to start cooking. I’ve missed my kitchen, my regular trips to the farmers’ market, holding a heavy-handled knife in my hand, the sizzle of garlic in olive oil. You would think I’d been away a year. I once took a creative writing class taught by a novelist who told me she could no more stop writing than she could stop breathing. That’s how I feel about cooking.
I wanted to make a good re-entry dish which, in my world, translates to comfort food. I wanted us all to be glad we were home, even if we were sorry our vacation had come to an end. Normally, this would mean a nice dish of pasta. But, for obvious reasons, I wanted to keep it on the light side. Mussels popped into my head, just like that, and then zuppa di cozze, mussel stew. Rich in flavor, total comfort food but far from indulgent, especially when compared to that list above.
Whenever I cook mussels I think, Why don’t I cook mussels more often? They are easy, requiring nothing more than a good rinse and a dump into a pot with a few other ingredients. Besides that, they are inexpensive and also healthful ~ nutritional powerhouses packed with protein, good fatty acids, and vitamins A and C. And they’re a good environmental choice. Nearly all mussels sold in the U.S. are cultivated in natural bodies of water and, in fact, improve the quality of the water by filtering it as they feed. Cultivated mussels rarely need to be scrubbed or de-bearded. Win win win win.
Here’s the re-entry zuppa di cozze I made the other night. I looked to my Abruzzo roots for the flavors, adding a small finely diced bell pepper for sweetness and some peperoncino for heat. The pot of mussels disappeared faster than you can say “fried cheese curds and a root beer float, please.” If only vacation calories could do the same.
Zuppa di cozze ~ mussel stew ~ is a mainstay in many Italian regions, particularly in the south. This version channels the flavors of Abruzzo and the Adriatic, with a touch of sweet pepper and also peperoncino (hot pepper) added to a light tomato base. Ladle the stew over grilled bread (bruschetta) at serving time. This recipe is adapted from The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 small red onion, sliced paper thin (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 small orange or yellow bell pepper, cut into small dice
- 2 small fresh chili peppers, minced (or a generous pinch red pepper flakes)
- About 2 cups peeled, seeded and diced plum tomatoes (or canned)
- Fine or coarse sea salt
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 to 4 pounds mussels (about 5 dozen), rinsed thoroughly (see COOK'S NOTE)
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 4 to 6 slices bruschetta (grilled bread)
- Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)
Film the bottom of a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot with the oil. Add the garlic and onion and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the onion begins to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper and peperoncino and cook, stirring, until the bell pepper begins to soften, another 3 to 4 minutes.
Pour in the tomatoes and add a pinch of salt. Cook at a gentle simmer until the tomatoes start to break down, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. As soon as it begins to boil dump in the mussels. Stir with a large spoon to coat the mussels with the sauce. Cover the pot and cook at a lively simmer for 2 minutes. Uncover and stir the mussels again. Re-cover and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until all of the mussels have opened. Taste the sauce and season with additional salt if you like. Remove the pot from the heat and discard any mussels that failed to open. Stir in the parsley and basil.
To serve, place a slice of bruschetta in a shallow soup bowl and ladle the mussels and sauce on top, dividing them evenly among the bowls. Drizzle a little of your best olive oil on top.
COOK'S NOTE Be sure to cook mussels the same day you buy them. Make sure they are all tightly closed, or that they close when you tap them. Discard any raw mussels that are open and don't close when tapped. Cultivated mussels are much easier to clean than wild-harvested ones. They just need a few good rinses in cold water. Occasionally you'll find one that needs to be de-bearded. Simply grasp the "beard" with your fingers and yank downwards towards the hinge of the shell. The "beard" should come off easily. If not, just snip it off with kitchen scissors. Store mussels, uncovered, in a large bowl in the refrigerator, with a handful or two of ice cubes to keep them cold until cooking time.