Friday, August 27, 2010

Shellfish addiction

The worst possible time to be having a cold is during the summer. The heat is unbearable, the sun is shining, the beach beckons and you have to stay inside with a runny nose and a sore throat, feeling cold and weak. While everyone else is having refreshing drinks and ice cream, all you need is a hot cup of tea and chicken soup to warm you up. It's a terrible feeling, and those who have colds during this time of year are the unlucky ones. And the unlucky one here is me. Well was me, until about four days ago.

The worst thing about having a cold any time of the year is, to me, the temporary loss of the sense of taste and smell. C'mon, all of you out there who love to cook (and eat) must surely sympathize with me. How can one cook if they can't taste or smell their food? It's like driving blindfolded. It is impossible. I absolutely hate it.
Last week, as well as the better part of this week, was spent without any serious cooking whatsoever. I was completely frustrated but then, all of a sudden, I could taste. I could smell. I was happy. So I did what I always do when I'm happy—I cooked.

I have been wanting to share this recipe with you since summer began but as I've said many times before, "so many recipes, so little time". Having a cold last week and a sensory deprivation to boot, I was daydreaming about flavors and different dishes and this one sprang to mind immediately. Like one of Pavlov's dogs hearing the bell ring, I began salivating. I knew it was time for me to cook the dish; Greek mussel pilaf.

Last summer, while I was visiting my family in Athens, I went out to lunch with my mom to an amazing seafood restaurant I haven't been to before. We had the most exquisite lunch with lots of catching up, lots of wine and two of the best seafood dishes I've had in a long time. The first was a king prawn spaghetti and the second was a mussel pilaf.

Mussel pilaf is a traditional Greek mussel and rice dish which I grew up on. It was one of my favorite dishes and I used to nag my mom to cook it for me almost every week. I had a thing for rice as well as a shellfish addiction. I loved mussels and that love still runs deep.

So that day, when I tasted that particular mussel pilaf, I was inspired. It was excellent. Its taste was really close to the one my mom always used to make but it had that extra oomph, that thing that makes your taste buds tingle. The next day I jotted down what I could remember from the dish, the ingredients, the flavors, the textures and after a few days I tried it myself, adding my own touches. It came out perfect. It was the best mussel pilaf I have ever made and, dare to say, tasted. I was ecstatic.

This is the mussel pilaf I'm sharing with you. It is the best you'll have and I'm not exaggerating. The flavors are subtle and full, and you can taste all the sweet richness of the mussels without any of the other ingredients overpowering them but rather complementing them. It is a forkful of the Mediterranean Sea.

Red and green peppers, garlic, loads of dill, green onions, raisins, olive oil, wine. The wine is as important in this dish as the mussels and the rice. It doesn't have to be expensive but it has to taste good. Great chefs always say that you must never add wine that you don't enjoy drinking to your food. If it's not good enough to drink, it's not good enough to cook with.

You need a light, dry white wine with lots of acidity for the mussel pilaf. I used an exceptional wine, the Greek variety of Assyrtiko. It is a sprightly wine that originated from the island of Santorini and it is unique in its taste and quality because of the volcanic soil that the grapes grow on. Another wine you can use is a Picpoul de Pinet which is a French wine from the Languedoc region that is very crisp and has a mineral edge. Even though Assyrtiko and Picpoul de Pinet are the best choices for this dish, they are a bit pricey and may be difficult to find. The safest alternative is a good Sauvignon Blanc.

This dish is subtle and light, perfectly balanced, bursting with flavors and aromas of the sea. The sweetness of the raisins and peppers, the zing of the garlic, the freshness of the dill and green onions, the succulence of the mussels as well as the floral aromas of the wine give this dish an incomparable taste. The textures are fantastic combining the moist, firm rice and pine nuts with the juicy, plump mussels and soft raisins. The colors are wonderful, with the greens and reds of the vegetables, yellow, orange and off-white of the mussels and blue-black of their shells.

The mussel pilaf is ideal for a summer dinner party, a family lunch or even a dinner for two. Naturally, you have to pair it with the same wine that you used to flavor the dish with. Accompany it with a tomato salad sprinkled generously with Greek dried oregano, drenched in olive oil and red wine vinegar, and make sure there's lots of crusty bread on the table.

Midopilafo (Greek Mussel Pilaf)

The mussels you are going to use for this dish need to be in their shells (live mussels), preferably fresh but you can also use the ones sold packed in water. Don't use the cleaned ones that are without shells or frozen ones (which are already dead) though. The recipe will not be the same and the dish will be nowhere as good.

You will need 1 kg of mussels but since not all mussels you are going to buy will be usable (some will have broken shells while others will not close when tapped) you have to buy a larger quantity of mussels—I would say about 1 ½ kg. Actually I bought 2 kg this time and ended up with a little over 1 kg of good mussels which was surprisingly few, but it happens.

The red pepper I used is a sweet red pepper from the Florina region in the northwest of Greece, but in case you can't find this pepper, you can substitute with red bell pepper.

By the way, did you know that the orange flesh of the mussels indicates that it is a female while the off white, paler flesh indicates that it is male?

Yield: 6-8 main-course servings


for the mussels
1 kg mussels with shells
80 ml dry white wine
3 tbsp water

for the pilaf
75 ml olive oil
6 green onions, white and pale green parts only, sliced
3 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
1 large, red Florina pepper (or ½ large, red bell pepper), minced
½ large, green bell pepper, minced
50 g (¼ heaped cup) pine nuts
700 g white long-grain rice
270 ml mussel liquid (if you end up with more, add less water)
200 ml dry white wine
80 g (½ cup) golden raisins
1,070 ml hot water (*see note below inside the recipe)
Freshly ground black pepper
15 g (½ cup) dill, chopped plus a little extra for sprinkling over the dishes

Special equipment: colander, fine sieve, muslin or cheese cloth, brush for cleaning the mussels


Cleaning the mussels
I am very meticulous when cleaning any kind of shellfish.
Place the mussels in a large colander and rinse them very well under running water for 3-4 minutes to get rid of the sand and any impurities. Discard any mussels whose shell is broken.
You will notice that there will be mussels whose shell is tightly closed and others whose shell is open. Those whose shell is closed are safe to keep. You need to tap on the shell of the ones that are open and if they close, then you can keep them. If not, discard them, they are dead.
Grip and pull away the beard of each mussel. The beard is a mass of tough, brown fibers that stick out between the two shell halves of the mussel. It helps the mussels (as well as other mollusks) cling and attach to rocks or other objects in the water. If you're having trouble pulling away the beard with your bare hand, use a knife to assist you in the tugging. Give mussels a good scrub with a brush, removing any barnacles that are attached to their shells. Then give them one last rinse and let them drain in the colander.
Read here more detailed instructions on how to clean mussels.

Cooking the mussels
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, add the mussels, the wine and the water. Turn heat on to medium-high and close the lid. When steam starts to get released from the sides of the pan, turn heat down to medium, shake the pan gently and let mussels steam for about 5 minutes or until their shells have opened. Shake the pan every minute or so, in order to ensure even cooking of the mussels. Don't shake the pan too hard because you may break the shells. Be careful not to overcook the mussels because they will dry out and become rubbery. You need them to be plump and juicy.

Drain the mussels and reserve the liquid. Discard any mussels that did not open while steaming. Set mussels aside.
Pass the mussel liquid through a fine sieve lined with a muslin or cheese cloth to get rid of any sand or impurities, and into a bowl. Set mussel liquid aside.

Prepare the pilaf
In another large, heavy-bottomed pan heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green onions and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes, until softened. Add the minced red and green peppers and sauté them for 4 minutes. Then add the pine nuts and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir it very well around the pan so that it gets coated with the olive oil and vegetables. Sauté the rice for 3-4 minutes and add the mussel liquid, the wine, water, raisins, salt and pepper. Stir well and bring mixture to the boil. Immediately lower heat to very low, close the lid and let rice cook.

* Note: The ratio of liquid to rice usually is 2:1 cups (in this recipe we have about 7 cups of liquid for 3 ½ cups of rice), or add enough liquid for the type of rice you're using (usually indicated on the packet). In case you end up with less mussel liquid than mine, add more water instead.

After 20-25 minutes, the rice will be almost cooked. Open the lid, check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary and add the chopped dill and the mussels. Stir everything around carefully as to not break the shells of the mussels, close the lid and let cook until all the water is absorbed (10-15 minutes more). You should end up with rice that is fluffy, moist yet a little firm, neither mushy nor tough.

Once ready, remove the lid and add a clean tea towel over the pan which will absorb any excess moisture. Leave it on the pan for 10 minutes, then remove it and serve the mussel pilaf.
You should not eat the mussel pilaf while it's hot but when it's warm.

Sprinkle some extra chopped dill over each plate.

The mussel pilaf is even better the following day as all the flavors have had more time to blend.


  1. I'm so sorry you were sick, but so happy that you're happy now! This recipe is a keeper. Those photos are AMAZING. Those mussels!

  2. I wish we were neighbors, Magda! So glad you are feeling better. Could really tell with your wonderful descriptions. Amazing what a little sensory deprivation can do to the mind, body and soul. Tremendous outcome. I've been on a cooking jag myself today. I keep scrolling back up to look at those beautiful photos :)

  3. Magda

    I know a good recipe when I see one and yours with the addition of raisins, pine nuts and dill (with a splash of good white wine) sounds just excellent!!!! Merci so much and hope you feel better!

  4. That dish looks great, I think I'd like to try that. Could I use basmati rice do you think?

  5. Belinda — thanks!

    Tracy — sensory deprivation can either drive you crazy or make you produce some pretty little dishes. I chose the second one :)

    taste of beirut — thank you!

    Deb — basmati is not used in Greek cuisine. It will add different flavors to the dish so, I would say no. If you do try the dish I would love to know how you liked it!

  6. This looks delish, a truly warming meal ;)

  7. I totally agree! I HATE getting sick in the summer, especially when I lose my sense of smell! And this dish is totally reminding me that I haven't had nearly enough mussels lately. I am obsessed with shellfish, too!


  8. Such a compelling, lush post, Magda, with an excellent tutorial on preparing the mussels themselves. I didn't know about the color difference in their genders!

  9. i hate being sick any time of the year - it really stuffs up my routine
    thanks for this recipe - this is one of my favorite mussel recipes; in crete, we dont get fresh mussels becos they arent fished here 9something to do with the strong currents), so i always use large green-lipped NZ mussles

  10. The recipe and pictures are making my mouth water. Could this dish be made with shrimps in their shells? I hope you are feeling better ... having a cold in summer is no fun for sure

  11. sohdalex — thanks!

    Sues — two mussels addicts here then ;)

    Nancy — thank you!

    Maria — I would love to get my hands on some NZ mussels. Hard to find here unfortunately.

    Sunitha — sure it can be made with shrimp. Add some fresh, diced tomato along with the other vegetables and an extra clove of garlic. It goes really well with shrimp.
    Add the raw shrimps to the pan 5-10 minutes before the pilaf is ready, depending on the size of the shrimp. Alternatively, you can steam the shrimp (like the mussels)and add the liquid to the pilaf. Then add the steamed shrimp to the pan right before pilaf is ready, in order to reheat them.

  12. A lot of people are sick this summer. I hope you're feeling better soon. It's a testament to your great skills hat you were able to whip up this 5 star dish with a cold. It's beautiful!

  13. This looks amazing--I love mussels and this is a lot less involved than making paella.

  14. as always, stellar photography!

    the worst time to get a cold is any month with a vowel in it.


  15. El — thanks!

    elizabeth — I've never made paella. Not when I can make this! :)

    High Plains — hehe you're right!