“But behind the chalet, my holiday’s complete
And I feel like William Tell, Maid Marian on her tiptoed feet
Pulling mussels from the shell
Pulling mussels from the shell”
There was no getting the Squeeze song “Pulling Mussels” out of my head while testing the recipe of “Nina’s Mussels” for the first season of Buddy Valastro’s, Kitchen Boss for TLC. Easily one of my favorites from that job, made even more so by delightful phone conversations with Buddy’s eager-to-share Aunt Nina- necessary to best develop and transcribe from verbal (“A pinch, maybe more – you know – until it tastes good!”), a written and beloved family culinary pearl.
Unlike oysters and many clams, mussels are most familiarly appreciated as cooked- generally prepared steamed in a savory seasoned broth enhanced by the mussel’s released juices, or tossed on a grill, whole, until the shell pops open, meat beckoning for a hot dunk in melted herb butter. Nina’s Mussels required a raw shuck before settling meat-side down on a bed of garlicky breadcrumbs, which presented a fresh challenge – yet another reason why I never tire of cooking as there is always something new and wonderful to learn and bring to the table, even if the new and wonderful to me is already something old and treasured to another.
With a decent shucking knife, I can open an oyster alright and with minimal blood loss. Once the recalcitrant muscle hinge is popped, the reward to slurping your briny mouthful comes on short order. The trick to opening raw mussels required Nina’s “snap” technique – a sliding, or snapping of the top and bottom slightly ajar, quickly slipping in the sharp blade of the knife, and down, to release the adductor’s tenacious grip. Practice made perfect – ensuring that my non-dominant hand was well-protected from the blade – and after testing several batches of roughly 3 dozen each, there were no visits to the E.R. and I think Aunt Nina would approve of my “snap”.
After shucking, well-seasoned and oiled homemade breadcrumbs are put down in your pan, topped by the raw mussels, meat-side down. The heat is turned up until the sizzling begins, soon followed by appetizing wafts of garlic, herbs and toasty bread. Magic happens a few minutes later. Carefully turned out onto a platter, crumb-side up, each mussel emerges with it’s own crisply burnished cap, tender cooked mussel beneath – each a perfect bite of contrasts in texture and flavor.
This recipe prep time is undoubtedly a bit time consuming, yes, but the actually cooking takes just minutes. With a result so impressively delicious, rustic in character and just perfect to serve as antipasti with a fizzy prosecco, I encourage you to prepare Nina’s Mussels. And then you will again and again.
The recipe calls for the use of a non-stick pan, but I continually use my grandmother’s seasoned cast iron skillet with great success.
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