Linguine with Mussel Sauce

…Some other kinds of pasta will also do.
(c) 2016, Davd

It was at a restaurant in or near Minneapolis, some 30-40 years ago, that i first ordered Linguine with Clam Sauce. I had been a few years away from the ocean and it was the least expensive seafood item on the menu—plus, it seemed likely some seasoning skill would be involved… and some was. The meal was memorable enough that i ordered that item again from time to time, in other restaurants.

I made Linguine with Clam Sauce occasionally when living on Vancouver Island, where good clams of the right kinds were abundant on the east-Island beaches; and the basic fourfold seasoning that works well with turkey, chicken, chowders, and some pork dishes, worked well in clam sauce: Sage, Celery, Onion, and Pepper.

Recently, here in Edmonton, i found some frozen cooked mussels, without shells, for a price per weight lower than the price of ground beef. I bought a bag, 2-3 pounds or maybe four, and put them in the freezer. I wasn’t quite ready to imitate exactly the sauce i’d made with clams, for two reasons: First, these were cooked and frozen, so i wouldn’t have the cooking liquid that i had to make clam sauce. Second, i knew from experience that mussels have a stronger, slightly “smoky” flavour when compared with clams.

I’d used mussels-and-broth in chowders and it had served well; but i was doubtful of using mussels without that broth. The solution to the predicament turned out to be cheap bacon. I had a package that contained several half slices with much more fat than meat, but decently smoked; so i tried cooking a generous fatty half slice, using the fat it left in the pan to lightly brown chopped onion and crumbling the bacon itself into the sauce with or before the mussels.*

It worked, so here is the technique, thrice tested.

Start with a cast iron frying pan or, if you’re cooking for five or more people, you might prefer a “Dutch oven”. Season it with oil or pork fat*—beef or chicken fat might add a taste that makes it less enjoyable rather than better. You can use an unseasoned pan and heat it slowly with some bacon fat; i prefer to season it first if there is time.

In bachelor format, one generous portion for one man, i put in a half slice of fat bacon, and cook it fairly slowly until it’s a pleasant tan color—by which time there will be a thin layer of liquid bacon fat in the pan.

If you’re going to cook your pasta at the same time as the sauce is cooking, then start the water boiling for that pasta while the bacon cooks. It’s OK if the pasts is cooked before the sauce is ready, and just sits and waits; but you won’t want to make the sauce wait for the pasta.

While the bacon is cooking is a good time to chop the onion, celery, and if you want some, carrot. I make a lot of carrot-raisin salad in the winter, and my rotary shredder leaves a thin strip of carrot that isn’t shredded well enough for salad; i save these and chop them into soups and sauces. Carrot, at least two chefs have told me, improves almost any soup or sauce; and of course, it’s good for you. I cut the carrot quite fine for this technique, smaller than i cut the celery or onion.

The onion—which will go in first—should be chopped small enough that you won’t feel it as distinct pieces when you eat it cooked soft in the sauce; the sauce can have a texture rather than being smooth, but this isn’t chowder, stew, or even salsa picante… it’s a sauce you’re making. I chopped, for one man’s one meal, between a quarter and a third of a cup of onion, chopped volume.. Since onions are layered in structure, not solid like potatoes or beets, i usually take two slices of an onion, lay them flat, and chop them with the vegetable knife, down to where no piece has any dimension longer than a quarter inch [6 mm].

Since the celery, like the onion, will cook quite soft quite quickly, i take a 5-6 inch [12-15 cm] piece from one of the outer stalks, cut it in half, slice each half into 3-4 pieces lengthwise, lay all those pieces parallel, and cut across them every eighth of an inch [3mm] or less. This should yield at least a quarter cup of chopped celery. The carrots have a harder texture and cook up more slowly, so i chop them quite fine.

Take out the bacon when its fat is tan, and it’s crisp; and leave it to cool (I put it on a spatula, because i usually keep one handy on or near the stove.) Turn up the heat a little and add the chopped onion. Let this start to brown but not go dark, then add some vegetable stock, the bacon, crumbled as you put it back, and the chopped carrot and celery. Sprinkle sage and pepper on the sauce while it’s heating back to boiling, cover the pan, lower the heat, and let it simmer for at least five minutes.

Then add the mussels (I put in about a dozen, and the ones i have are about an inch long); and since mine are frozen, i have to wait a few minutes for the pan to re-heat again to boiling. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes, and i’d suggest more nearly ten. While they simmer, take a less than heaping forkful of corn starch, add it to a small amount of vegetable stock, and stir it in. The rule is to add the starch to the liquid; and a fork is best for the stirring.

When the mussels are hot, and have given some of their flavour to the sauce, add the water and starch, stir it through the sauce, and let it heat just until it starts to bubble—at which point the whitish colour of the starch will disappear and the sauce become thicker. The sauce is now ready: Turn off the power, as soon as the bubbling starts and the sauce thickens, and if you’re adding cold cooked pasta, you can do it a half minute later. The boiling hot mussels and sauce will average out with the cold pasta, and your meal will be at eating temperature.

Linguine, i believe, are the best shape of pasta to use with clam or mussel sauce; but fettuccine [which i used in my trials], rotini, fusilli, and probably “sea shell” pasta, should do quite well enough. All these have about the same thickness; it’s just that to avoid a really messy job of eating long strings, and to be able to take one bite containing both mussel and pasta, you should probably cut linguine or fettuccine down to two inch lengths or shorter. Spaghetti will work with this sauce, if that’s the only kind of pasta you have handy—but don’t grab just any pasta at all.

If i write that fettuccine, fusilli or rotini, even spaghetti should work well enough with this technique, don’t take that as encouragement to get really silly and put in, for instance, penne, orzo, or elbow macaroni. (I can think of two good dressings to put on elbow macaroni: Cheese [with a little pepper and chives if you have some handy], or mayonnaise, as part of a macaroni salad. Myself, i almost never buy elbow macaroni, because i like potatoes at least as well with cheese. and potatoes make a better protein balance with cheese than macaroni does; while rotini, fusilli, and shell shaped pasta are at least as good as elbows as a shape for pasta salad.

Don’t try vermicelli or even spaghettini with mussel sauce, either. The wrong shape of pasta won’t make you sick, but it won’t make you as happy an eating experience, either—the mussels are too large relative to thin thin pasta..

So there, with plenty of commentary and a bit of a story, is a technique you can use often if you live near a seacoast, and “from time to time” if you don’t. The sauce, you’ll notice when the winter beefsteak blog appears, is not quite the same as for beefsteak and pasta, but really quite similar. The SCOP seasoning check-list is something well worth learning, along with its variations for beef; it will make you a better cook, and will make your sauces and [seafood and poultry] soups impressively more savoury than the ones sold in cans and jars.


* Mussels aren’t Kosher, so there’s no point trying to find an alternative to bacon for devout Jewish readers. (About Halal and other dietary disciplines, i still know too little to comment.)


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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