The best part of a steaming pot of mussels just might be the broth. Garlic- flecked, wine-drenched and suffused with salty brine, it can be so good that sometimes I’ll forget about the mussels themselves. Instead, I’ll focus on mopping up the entire pool of liquid with whatever is in reach — chunks of bread, french fries, even the empty mussel shells.
This pasta with mussels, tomatoes and fried capers gives that heady broth a higher purpose, elevating it from byproduct to the very heart of a dish. All it takes is little simmering, a bit of butter and some ripe tomatoes.
First, though, you need some mussels. These days, most of the ones you’ll find have been farmed and de-bearded for you. All they’ll need is a rinse.
Juicy tomatoes also are key; that sweet tomato water is just as important as the mussel broth. The tomato juice mellows the salt. Any leaky heirlooms or beefsteaks on your counter that are too soft for salad work well here.
Cube them, then saute them with red-pepper flakes and garlic until the cubes start to collapse, but don’t entirely melt. They should have some integrity.
Because mussels are soft and tomatoes even softer, I wanted to add some texture to the dish. So I fried a combination of bread crumbs and capers until golden and crisp. The bread crumbs become almost meaty, while the capers turned into crunchy, tangy shards, like pickle-flavored potato chips but better. They’re a perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of shellfish, tomatoes and butter.
Then it’s all tossed with al dente pasta while the sauce is still hot. This way, the pasta can absorb every last, glorious drop. It makes for a dining experience more elegant than slurping mussel broth out of a shell, and I think tastier, too.
PASTA WITH MUSSELS, TOMATOES AND FRIED CAPERS
By Melissa Clark
- Salt, as needed
- 8 ounces rigatoni or other short pasta
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons drained capers, patted dry
- 3 garlic cloves, 1 minced, 2 thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Large pinch of red-pepper flakes
- 2 cups diced ripe, fresh tomatoes
- Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
- Fresh lemon juice, to taste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 large sprigs fresh oregano or marjoram
- 2 pounds mussels, rinsed and debearded
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
- 1/4 cup torn fresh basil or mint
Cook pasta in heavily salted water according to package directions until 2 minutes shy of al dente. Drain.
In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium. Add capers and minced garlic; let sizzle 30 seconds. Add breadcrumbs and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Scrape onto a plate; season with salt.
Add remaining tablespoon oil to pot. When hot, add sliced garlic and red-pepper flakes; let sizzle until garlic is golden at edges, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in tomatoes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until tomatoes have softened, about 6 minutes. Transfer tomato solids to a small bowl, add lemon juice.
Add wine and oregano to pot; bring to simmer. Add mussels, cover and cook over medium, shaking pot occasionally, until mussels have opened and are cooked through, 4 to 7 minutes. Transfer to large bowl.
Simmer mussels liquid until reduced to a glaze, about 5 minutes. Discard oregano sprigs.
Remove mussel meat from shells, add to reduced mussel broth. Add pasta, tomatoes and butter; toss. Top with herbs and breadcrumb mixture. Serves 3 to 4.
Nutrition information unavailable.