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Mussels for Dinner, Coffee for Dessert:
Why? Because I love them both. Plus, a Mr. Espresso Valentine's Day giveaway!
FIRST: Thank you for your wonderful comments last week! I loved reading all the reasons why you love Italian food. The winner of the one-year paid subscription is DONNA! (Donna, look for an email confirmation.)
A question I get asked fairly often is: Where do your recipes come from? Are they family recipes? Traditional? Regional? Seasonal? Do I happen upon them in my travels? Do they bubble up out of nowhere?
The answer is: All of those things. But sometimes a recipe comes to me from an entirely different place. And that place is the back of a package of pasta.
In this case it was a package of Pasta Gragnano in Corsa, a top-shelf brand made in Gragnano, near Naples, where dried pasta has been produced for hundreds of years. In spite of the smallish font, the recipe for Pasta, Cozze, e Patate (pasta, mussels, and potatoes) caught my eye for several reasons:
* First: It involved pasta and potatoes, a classic Neapolitan combination. People furrow their brows at the thought of putting these two carbs together in the same dish, but it works; the diced potatoes collapse just a bit and make a sort of rustic creamy sauce, and the whole thing feels like a hug.
* Second: It starred mussels, a shellfish that IMO is way underappreciated, in the U.S. anyway, and which I personally love. Fresh mussels, properly cooked, are plump, briny, and sweet. And they’re easy to cook.
* Third: Pecorino cheese. At the end of cooking, as you’re mixing everything together—pasta, mussels, and potatoes—you throw in a handful of grated Pecorino cheese. A dish that breaks the rules! Having already tried and loved another rule-breaking pasta dish with seafood and cheese, I had a good feeling about this one. (You’ll find the printable recipe below.)
This dish is simple and rustic, but at the same time it feels a little elegant (maybe because of the mussels?). So even if it came from the back of a package of pasta it would make a lovely Valentine’s Day dinner, with a peppery arugula salad on the side and a dainty little coffee dessert (more on that below).
A word about mussels: Some of you might be wrinkling your nose at the thought of having to clean and de-beard mussels, or that they are a fussy ingredient in general, or not safe to cook at home. These concerns are mostly outdated. Most of the mussels sold in the U.S. are farmed, and the dirt and grit is removed before you buy them. Unlike some forms of aquaculture, mussel farming, where the mollusks are “seeded” and grown on ropes submerged in coastal waters, is environmentally friendly. You can read more about the process here.
Readers: Do you cook shellfish at home? What is your favorite way to prepare it?
A Coffee Dessert and a Giveaway!
Some of you know how fond I am of coffee, especially in dessert form, like this one and this one (paywall). I have a new one to add to the roster: Frozen Espresso Zabaglione. I came up with this recipe, adapted from one in the New York Times, in collaboration with Mr. Espresso, an Oakland, CA-based coffee company. The company, founded in 1978 by Carlo DiRuocco, has a great backstory: When Carlo immigrated to California from Salerno, south of Naples, he was disappointed by the lack of good coffee. He began slow-roasting beans over an oak wood fire, as he had learned in Italy, and selling them to local cafés and restaurants. Mr. Espresso is still family-run and its beans are still oak wood-roasted.
Since I love strong espresso (double shot), I used Mr. Espresso Neapolitan Roast to make the coffee zabaglione. It’s a medium-dark roast, with deep chocolate and toffee notes. If you prefer your coffee a bit more tame, but still rich, try their Tuscan or Triestino roast. (You can read more about Mr. Espresso’s various coffee blends and roasts here.)
To celebrate Valentine’s Day—or coffee—I’m giving away a bag each of Neapolitan Roast and Tuscan Roast, courtesy of Mr. Espresso. The giveaway is open to paid subscribers and it’s easy to enter: just leave me a comment about your favorite way to enjoy coffee: espresso, cappuccino, cortado, correto, in a dessert, or however you prefer it. Two winners will be chosen at random and announced in next week’s newsletter.
On to the recipes.
RECIPE: Pasta, Cozze, Patate e Pecorino
(Pasta with Mussels, Potatoes & Pecorino Cheese)
This seems an unlikely combination of ingredients, yet it’s delicious and maybe not all that odd after all. Pasta e patate (pasta and potatoes) is a classic Neapolitan dish, as is pasta with mussels. Combining the two is a clever riff. But the genius touch is the addition of pecorino cheese. It’s often frowned upon in Italian cooking, but it works here. The sharp cheese, stirred in at the end, enhances the shellfish’s briny flavor and punches up the starchy potatoes. (Recipe from Pasta Gragnano in Corsa.)
Another word about mussels: It’s always a good idea, when buying mussels, or any fresh seafood, to know where it comes from. The tag on the bag of mussels I bought at a local fish store showed they came from American Mussel Harvesters, so I looked it up. The farm is located off the coast of Rhode Island, and the mussels are cultivated without antibiotics or artificial food, so I felt confident they would be safe.
Also, plan to cook mussels (or any fresh seafood) on the same day you buy them.
2 medium yellow-fleshed potatoes
2 pounds (1 kg) live mussels; about 5 dozen
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed
Generous pinch of red pepper flakes (about 1/2 teaspoon, or more to taste)
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 pound (454 g) short, sturdy pasta, such as medium shells, mezze-maniche, or penne
1/2 cup (45 to 50 g) freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat and salt it generously.
While the water is heating, place the potatoes in a separate pot with cold water to cover by 2 inches (5 cm) and add 1 tablespoon salt. Cover partially, bring to a boil and boil until just tender. Drain the potatoes in a colander and let rest until cool enough to handle. Peel and cut them into smallish dice.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the mussels. Check to make sure they are alive and fresh. They should smell briny and not at all fishy, and they should be tightly closed; if any are open, tap them lightly against the countertop. They should close up within a few seconds. If they stay open, toss them. Place the mussels in a colander and scrub them under cold water to remove any dirt or grit. (Most mussels available in the U.S. are farmed and cleaned before you buy them, so you don’t usually have beards to pull off.). Put them in a large saucepan and pour in about 3/4 cup water—enough so that they are resting in about 1/2 inch of water. Cover and cook on medium-high to high heat until the mussels start to open, 3 to 5 minutes. Rather than wait for all of them to open, I start removing the ones that open first so that they don’t overcook, transferring them with tongs to a bowl. Once all the mussels have been transferred, pour the liquid remaining in the pot through a fine mesh sieve lined with damp paper towel into a bowl or liquid measuring cup. You should have at least 1 cup liquid. Set it aside.
3. Remove the mussels from their shells and place them in a small bowl, taking care to leave about a dozen in their shells for garnish.
4. Pour the olive oil into a large skillet and add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat, just until the garlic is softened slightly and aromatic but not browned, about 5 minutes. Press on the garlic to release its flavor into the oil. At this point, you can remove it or leave it in (I leave it in). Add the potatoes and about half the reserved mussel liquid. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring a few times, until the potatoes have absorbed some of the liquid and are soft but not mushy (they should mostly hold their shape).
5. When the pasta water is boiling, drop in the pasta and cook according to package instructions until just al dente. Finish the sauce while the pasta is cooking: Add the mussels to the potatoes, along with the rest of the reserved liquid and cook gently until heated through. Stir in the parsley.
6. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, use a spider or slotted serving spoon to transfer it to the skillet, along with a little pasta water. Toss gently to combine and let the pasta cook for about a minute, just enough to absorb some of the liquid. Remove from the heat and stir in half the Pecorino cheese. Spoon into shallow warmed bowls and sprinkle more Pecorino cheese on top. Serve.
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RECIPE: Frozen Espresso Zabaglione
This clever dessert is a bit like a frozen coffee soufflé; light and airy but with the robust flavor of freshly brewed espresso (spiked with Cognac). It’s rich, thanks to the whipped egg yolks that form its (deceptively light) custard base, so a little goes a long way. I serve it in demitasse cups, with little silver espresso spoons. The recipe is adapted from one by David Tanis published in the New York Times.
Tips for making zabaglione:
Zabaglione can be tricky. It is essentially a light custard, made from whipping egg yolks with sugar and (usually) Marsala wine, and heating the mixture over a bagno maria (simmering water bath) until it doubles or triples in volume. You must whisk the mixture the entire time it’s on the stovetop and bring its temperature up slowly, or you risk ending up with scrambled eggs. If not properly whipped, the zabaglione can separate.
Copper is the best material for making zabaglione because it conducts heat evenly. If you don’t have a copper bowl, use heat-proof glass. You can use a stainless-steel bowl, but be careful, as the thinness of the metal could cause the eggs to overheat and scramble.
Most recipes for zabaglione call for a hand whisk, which is the best tool for beating air into the eggs. However, I use a hand mixer, which is faster and far less taxing on my wrist.
Use high-quality espresso and brew it yourself, whether using an espresso machine or a stovetop Moka pot. I like Mr. Espresso Neapolitan espresso, which I’ve been using for the past several months as part of a collaboration with the Oakland, CA-based roasting company. Any of Mr. Espresso’s three espresso roasts: Neapolitan (medium-dark roast), Tuscan (medium roast), and Triestino (medium-light roast) work with this recipe, but I am partial to the darker Neapolitan roast.
Classic zabaglione is served warm or at room temperature. Here, the custard is instead frozen until firm, then removed from the freezer a few minutes before serving time to soften slightly. It’s a bit like a semifreddo or a mousse and once you taste a spoonful, you’ll know it was worth the fiddly process.
Makes 8 demitasse servings
4 large egg yolks
4 to 5 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Cognac
1/3 cup freshly brewed espresso, slightly cooled
Whipped cream, for serving
1. Fill a small to medium pot with water and bring it to a simmer over medium heat.
2. Use a bowl that will sit securely in the pot without its bottom touching the simmering water—you can use a double boiler if you have one. Combine the egg yolks and 4 tablespoons of sugar in the bowl and use a whisk or hand mixer to whip the mixture until thick and lightened in color. Dribble in the Cognac and the coffee, whisking all the while.
3. Place a large-ish bowl partially filled with ice or ice water on a clean kitchen towel near (but not on) the stove.
4. Set the bowl with the egg and coffee mixture over the pot of simmering water and whisk constantly until the eggs start to warm up and turn foamy. You may need to use a kitchen towel to grasp the bowl as it heats up. After about 5 minutes, maybe less, the egg mixture will start to thicken and grow in volume. Keep whisking until the zabaglione has at least doubled in volume and you can see tracks from the whisk or beaters. This could take another 5 minutes or so.
5. Remove the bowl from the heat and set it in the bowl of ice and continue to whisk. Keep whisking until the mixture is light and thick and has cooled to room temperature. It should be the texture of very softly whipped cream or a very thick pouring custard.
6. Arrange eight demitasse cups on a small baking tray. Pour or spoon the espresso zabaglione into the cups, until they are nearly full. Cover the cups lightly with a sheet of plastic wrap and set the tray in the freezer. Freeze the zabaglione for at least 4 hours; overnight is fine.
7. To serve, remove the zabaglione from the freezer and let sit for 10 minutes. Garnish each demitasse with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and a sprinkle of finely ground espresso. Serve with demitasse spoons.
VARIATION: Before portioning out and freezing the zabaglione, gently fold in about 1 cup stiffly whipped cream (this version yields several more portions). Because of the crystals formed by the cream, it isn’t quite as smooth as cream-free frozen zabaglione, but the combination of coffee and cream is delicious. If adding whipped cream to the zabaglione, you can omit the whipped cream garnish and just sprinkle each serving with a pinch of finely ground espresso.
NOTE: If you don’t have demitasse cups, spoon the zabaglione into a single serving dish and freeze. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving, then spoon it into small bowls and serve with a whipped cream and ground espresso garnish.
A Friendly Reminder
Did you know that my latest book, Williams-Sonoma Everyday Italian, is currently available at Williams-Sonoma stores and through their online shop? It is also available for pre-order on Amazon ahead of a May 16, 2023 release. It would make a lovely Mother’s Day gift (just saying…).
New Classes and Other News coming soon…
Next week I’ll have an update about new classes for spring. I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to teach but with Easter on April 9, I’d love to get in at least one Easter-related class. I’m thinking of re-running my Savory Easter Tortes class. Or maybe Homemade Cannoli. Let me know if you would be interested in either/both (you can leave a comment).
I’ve also been working with fellow food writer Kathy Gunst to finalize plans for a second Food Writers in Italy workshop. I’ll be sharing details in next week’s newsletter.
PICTURE ITALY: Bergamo, 2019
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