With the temperatures dropping and damp air outpacing autumn’s crispness, we’ve been in the mood for a hearty Baked Mussels 003seafood dish. While some entertaining hosts disagree, I think there is no better reason to try a new dish than friends coming over for dinner. Besides, Itty Bitty Betty and The Bacon Terrorist are always game. As friends with a mutual appreciation for food and cooking, they are a forgiving audience if things don’t go as planned.

Regardless my hand immediately reached for one of our foolproof cookbooks From the Earth to the Table. This wine country cuisine, whole-foods focused cookbook has been the source of some our favorite meals including our favorite spicy tri-color tomato soup and ricotta and herb tart.  The night’s beverage list was weighted heavily on beers, making baked mussels with serrano chiles and fresh mozzarella the perfect choice.

For avid shellfish fans, Mike and I rarely cook them at home instead preferring to leave the shucking and serving to the professionals. I was nervous about giving our friends food poisoning with my amateur shellfish ways. Still, mussels are reputed to be easy to prep and spotting a bad mussel is pretty straightforward  (anything with a closed shell after cooking time is complete). I soldiered on.

results and recipe after the jump!

The result was a treat. The white wine and butter broth held up a rich acidity against the briny mussels and pancetta while chiles, mozzarella, garlic and  shallots co-mingled to give each bit a complex flavor to keep our tastebuds interested. Each bowl of mussels was served on a bed of spinach that naturally wilted under the warm broth from the stove.

Turns out this meal is well suited to group entertaining. I was concerned at first that mussels on a bed of spinach wouldn’t be a hearty enough but the addition of mozzarella, pancetta, and breadcrumbs gave the dish heft. Plus Itty Bitty Betty received my telepathic message and brought the perfect bread to soak up the delicious broth – a yeasty, olive-oil soft hunk of a loaf from The Greek Deli in Farragut. [The Greek Deli, btw, is a famous lunch spot for downtown employees and one that Mike and I are dying to try for ourselves.]

While it is a painless dish for a single chef in the kitchen (something cookbooks should be more upfront about – professional chefs with entire staffs in the kitchen, I’m looking at you!) it is fairly hands on. I recommend you get the bulk of the work together before guests arrive. This can require some crafty timing – the final step only takes about 3 minutes – but it’s well worth it.

All in all, a delicious and easy bistro meal from a home kitchen.

Mussels Baked with Serrano Chilis and Fresh Mozzarella

Ingredients:

2 cups dry white wine
2 TB unsalted butter
3 dozen larger mussels, scrubbed and debearded (most mussels from the store will come this way)
2 TB olive oil plus additional for bread crumbs
6 oz pancetta or thick sliced bacon (we sub in prosciutto)
2 TB minced garlic
1/4 cup minced shallots or green onion, white party only
2 TS seeded and minced serrano chile
6 TB fresh parsley
6 TB dry bread crumbs
6 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 large bunch of spinach, washed and stems discarded

In a medium pot bring wine and butter to a boil over high heat. Add mussels and cover. Shaking pan occasionally, cook the mussels until the shells just begin to open, about 3 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels. Using a slotted soon, remove the mussels and set aside. Strain the poaching liquid through a fine mesh strainer and reserve. Remove and discard the top shell from the mussels. Replace any mussels that have been dislodged from their shells during cooking.

In a saute pan, heat the 2 TB olive oil and cook pancetta until crisp. Drain on paper towels. Add the garlic, shallots, and chile to the pan and saute until soft but not brown. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool. Add the pancetta and parsley and stir to combine. In a medium bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and a few drops of olive oil to very lightly coat them.

Baked Mussels 001Place the prepped mussels in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof pan (ed. note: you’ll want walls on this pan so the mussels and juices don’t slide off!). Moisten each with a few drops of the reserved poaching liquid. Divide the pancetta mixture evenly on top of the mussels. Cover ech mussel with  thin slice of mozzarella. Sprinkle the oiled breadcrumbs on top. Preheat the broiler. Put the mussels under the broiler until the cheese just melts and lightly browns, about 3 minutes.

While the mussels are browning, pour 1/2 cup of reserved poaching liquid into saute pan. Heat over medium high heat and add the spinach, stirring for a minute until it wilts. Divide the wilted spinach into small beds on each plate; arrange 6 mussels on top of each. Serve immediately.