Bacon and Basil Mussels
It is officially winter and then some in Canada right now. Last night the wind was howling at the moon and the air had reached a balmy -34ºC with the windchill (attention Fahrenheit people: that means it was cold. Very, very cold). This is the kind of weather where the very air seems frozen, and each puff of valuable warm air that you expire seems to solidify and shatter before it disperses onto the ground in tiny pellets of ice.
I’ve been struggling to find inspiration for the foods that I want to serve and eat, because all that I can think about is stew, braised beef, lamb curries, and roasted vegetables. I’m fighting against the urge to hibernate and see how long I can survive sitting in front of the space heater watching TV and eating Wheat Thins with smoked gouda. It doesn’t help that I keep balking at the thought of grocery shopping, which would entail leaving the warmth of my home and tromping through tundra for something as silly as fresh vegetables.
Twice now, I have driven to the grocery store after work with every intention of shopping. Both times I arrived and parked, peered out the door at the mountains of foul looking gray slush, panned over to my totally impractical heels, and promptly drove away. However, in a last ditch effort to avoid scurvy for at least another month, I girded my loins, laced up some boots, and drove to the grocer to get my groove back along with some fresh lettuce and fruit.
I left with bacon and mussels.
I suppose that I could have at least bought some salad to go with the dinner, or fresh basil for the sauce, but somehow that just seemed like far too much effort. Ergo, dinner was “pantry staple” mussels. This is the kind of light and fuss-free fare that can be crafted, for the most part, from what you already have in your house. Or, another way of looking at it, this is one of those lazybones meals I make every now and then when I don’t have the foresight to buy more than one fresh ingredient at a time. Such is life. Our delicious, bacon rich and tomatoey life.
Bacon and Basil Mussels
Serves 3-4 as an entree, 6-8 as an appetizer
- 4 lbs fresh mussels
- 1/2 lb smoked bacon (or pancetta)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tsp dried basil *
- pinch hot pepper flakes (optional)
- 1.5 cups white wine
- 1 can (19 oz) San Marzano tomatoes **
- 1 tbsp butter
- salt and pepper to taste
* Fresh basil would be fabulous in this easy mussel dish, and really lend a bright vibrancy to the sauce. If you have fresh basil, chiffonade 1.5 heaping tablespoons of the herb. In a pinch, however, as this pantry-staples mussel dish is, dried basil lends an earthy herbal note.
** The Italian San Marzano tomatoes are a sweet plum tomato that’s perfect for sauces. If you can’t find canned or jarred San Marzano though, canned whole stewed tomatoes are fine.
Dice the bacon into small (1/4″ chunks). In a large heavy pot heat the oil over medium heat and add the bacon. Let the bacon start to cook down and render out it’s fat. While the bacon is cooking, peel and finely chop the onion. Peel and mince the garlic while you’re at it.
When the bacon is half cooked (opaque and firm but not crispy or browned) add the onions and garlic, stirring frequently so that they do not brown or burn which would cause bitterness.
By the time that the onions are soft and translucent the bacon should be cooked through. Add the bay leaf to the aromatics and if you’re using dried basil stir it in as well (for fresh, hold off and add it at the end). Pour in the white wine to the pot and stir vigorously to lift any delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Let the white wine simmer away for 3-4 minutes to soften some of the acidity. Pluck the tomatoes out of their broth and make a fist around each one, squeezing the flesh out through your fingers to break it down. Add the hand crushed tomatoes to the wine and pour in the residual sauce from the can, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Cook the sauce for 5-7 minutes to let the tomatoes continue to break down. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper if necessary.
Pick through your mussels to make sure that they are properly cleaned with no bits of residual dirt or beard left attached. If there is you can simply scrub it off. Look for any mussels which are open and give them a quick rat-a-tat-tat with your knuckles. If they don’t close, discard them. Add the mussels to the pot and stir them into the sauce.
Put a tight fitting lid on the pot and let the mussels steam away undisturbed. After 8 minutes you should check on the mussels. When the shells are open and the flesh of the mussel is soft but taut they are fully cooked. If not, give them a stir, put the lid back on the pot, and let them continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes but not much more. Perfectly cooked and tender mussels are simply delightful. Overcooked mussels are less of a treat, and more akin to something that you’d play Murder Ball with in the schoolyard.
Dollop in the tablespoon of butter and stir it through to coat the mussels and enrich the tomato sauce. If you’re using freshly chopped basil, stir it in now.
Spoon the mussels and plenty of their bacon-rich tomato broth into bowls and serve with plenty of crusty bread on the side to sop up all of those delicious juices.