la pepata di cozze: hot pot of fragrant mussels
(This is the first part in a series of posts dedicated to fish and fish cookery, and especially how it’s done here in the Salento, the thin slice of gorgeous land dangling out into the middle of the seas that make up the Mediterranean. Like you, I had always tended to fall back on a handful of recipes, virtually neglecting the rest of the monger’s case. This summer, all of that is going to change. I’ll be posting a lot, so feel free to read it if you like but if your summer is going well, this info will still be on the site come autumn: just ignore it until you have more time. Have a great summer!)
‘There is no such thing as Italian food’, the saying goes. And it’s true. In a nation remarkably free of truly national traits and standards, you’d be hard-pressed to make any single blanket statement about the food and wine up and down the peninsula.
Well, except maybe for this: If there is anything that seems to guide the hand of every great cook here, it would be A) Find good ingredients. B) Don’t screw them up.
A simple tomato salad. A simmered haunch of beef. A grilled trout. A summer soup. A pasta sauce based on leaves and nuts. Espresso over ice with almond milk. Most dishes here are walk-through-the-front-door simple and rarely involve anything that you’d be tempted to call ‘technique’.
….Just like la pepata di cozze. It takes only a few minutes to cook, costs very little and from technique point of view, you could teach a monkey to make it. (the excuse I always give whenever local friends ask me how just one cook could make so much of a mess in a kitchen on my days off, only that I usually say ‘team of monkeys’, which is, sadly, more plausible).
First, find some good mussels. Here in Puglia, I can say without a hint of arrogance, that we have the best mussels in all of Italy, which might be the same thing as saying, ‘in all the world’. And while Northern France’s cider-based mussel dishes are excellent, and those with coconut milk and red curries of Thailand never fail to transport the tongue half away around the world, it’s the actual animal itself that is remarkably good here. Sometimes you have to wonder how come the meat inside didn’t manage to actually pop the shell. Plus, the sweetness, bordering on that of lobster.
Like lobsters, eels, crabs, clams and crayfish, mussels are nearly always killed by the cook. If this upsets you as a cook, you probably shouldn’t be eaten meat in the first place. (About the only culinary conversation that doesn’t interest me is one where the diner insists that someone else kill his dinner, only to judge that person as ‘cruel’ for doing so).
These are my hands, effectively killing a mussel. Once the beard is ripped out, death begins.
While I have no ethical issue with this, I do have culinary ones: Mussels are sold alive for a reason. Pull this beard an hour before lunch and you’ll have a great lunch. That same raw mussel though, I wouldn’t eat it for dinner.
Once cleaned, take your heaviest pot and put it over a flame for a good ten minutes. If it’s not smoking and nearly glowing, it’s not hot enough, in my opinion. You’re going to need that carry-over temperature once you introduce your liquid, in this case, a dry local white wine called ‘verdeca’ for the same reason that ‘verdicchio’ is called ‘verdicchio’. (young and verde, or green).
Toss in some whole garlic-cloves and some chopped chili (black pepper can be used instead but as historically this was imported from India and out of economic reach of most folks here, I believe that the ‘pepe’ in la ‘pepata‘ refers to red peppers rather than black. A food scholar friend disagrees with me but two others agree: that there should be a little hum of heat is agreed upon by all).
When the pot can’t get any hotter, toss in the mussels. If you’re using mussels from the Mediterranean, you’ll likely need to add more wine than just to taste, or to steam with. You’re actually diluted down the mussels broth, as the sea’s evaporation rate is such that you’ll actually float in the water.
They are going to hiss and spit. Cover, wait a minute or two and begin to fold the mussels in the pot, remembering that those that steaming over a liquid will cook slower than those immersed in one. Fold from top to bottom, as opposed to stirring horizontally. When the majority of them are open (today it took less than 3 minutes), add a lot of finely-chopped parsley, a glug of raw extra virgin olive oil and serve immediately. You can put a slice of old bread in the bottom of the bowl (the drier the bread, the more its ability to absorb the broth)
Regarding wine, I only ever reach for one and it’s pink and local. If you’re still hung over from all the pink wine you drank when Love Boat was still on the air, try one again. With your more mature taste buds, you might be able to see what all the fuss is about. Look for a Rosato del Salento. And tell me what you think of it.
As you may have heard, I’ve dedicated this summer to learning more about cooking fish, as I said above. But I’ve also thrown myself into learning more about food photography. Rule one in most of the books that make up the stack I bought say, Don’t eat the food you photograph.
I think this is a great rule but as your eye lovingly saunters over this last picture of a big bowl of steaming mussels, guess which one I ate first. It was salty and sweet and intimate.
My finger had barely pushed down the shutter button before my mouth was flooded with all of this, all that is so incredible about the Mediterranean and all that we’re able to coax out of the salty sea.