Cozze Ripiene – Stuffed Mussels
This is a clever and thrifty dish with peasant origins from Puglia, the most southern tip of Italy’s peninsula. It’s an area which is rich and abundant in seafood, grains and vegetables but over the centuries has seen some of the worst poverty in the country.
It’s famous port city, Taranto, is known as the city of two seas as it’s home to two geographically interesting bodies of water known as “The Great Sea” and the flat, lagoon-like, “Little Sea”. Both have freshwater springs called citri, which create low saline conditions, perfect for mussels, also known as mitili, muscoli or cozze, in Italian. The Pugliesi have been cultivating mussels since about 1000 AD and it’s been the major economic industry in the port city for centuries.
Taranto’s cozze, which come into season in late spring until early autumn, are often eaten raw, opened on the half shell like oysters. They are small and sweet with meat that fills the entire shell, unlike these gargantuan South Australian mussels that I’ve used in the photos. Unsurpringly, mussels feature largely in Puglia’s cuisine, prepared in a myriad of ways – opened in a simple tomato, garlic and parsley sauce, baked in a tiella with rice, slices of potato, tomato and cheese, or in a gratin, for example.
This dish calls for a few humble ingredients and a little bit of extra preparation but results in a hearty and beautiful meal that can cover both first and second course. The mussels are steamed open, the liquid reserved to add to a rich tomato sauce. The opened mussels are then stuffed with a breadcrumb and cheese mixture, closed with kitchen string and cooked in the tomato sauce. The mussels, sandwiched in their shells with the breadcrumb mixture, can be separately, while the tomato sauce – infused with the flavour of the mussels – is served with pasta as the first course or perhaps the next day.
You can, of course, also eat this as one meal – just the mussels, mopped up in their tomato sauce. No bread necessary of course, except to clean the plate. Be prepared to get your fingers dirty as you have to cut the string (a sharp knife at the table is handy for this), then pry the shells back open again, but the treasure inside is worth it. Keep a finger dipping bowl nearby.
By the way – the rule of no cheese with seafood that is rigidly applied throughout most of the country is broken in Puglia. Pecorino and shellfish go hand in hand in many dishes here.
- 1 kg live mussels in their shells, cleaned of their beards and any exterior grit
- olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 400 gr can of tomato (chopped or peeled)
- 200 gr breadcrumbs
- 100 gr stale bread, soaked in a little milk until soft
- 100 gr Pecorino cheese, grated
- 2 small eggs
- sea salt and black pepper
Open the cleaned mussels by steaming them in a large, covered pot. Remove the mussels as they open up. Set aside the liquid for use in the tomato sauce.
In a large pot, prepare the tomato sauce by gently sauteeing one of the garlic cloves, smashed or sliced, in some olive oil until aromatic and soft. Add the can of tomato plus a splash of water and the liquid from the mussels. Turn up the heat until it comes to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes or until reduced slightly then take off the heat, add the parsley and set aside.
Prepare the stuffing mixture by combining the other garlic clove, chopped finely, the breadcrumbs, the stale bread (squeezed of any excess liquid and crumbled into the bowl), the pecorino and eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
Fill the opened mussel shells with a spoonful of mixture, then close them, wrapping some kitchen string around them to keep them shut. Once they are all filled, add them to the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Make sure you are using a pot large enough to fit the mussels and deep enough o that the mussels are all submerged in the sauce (if needed, top up with water). Cook the mussels again for about 15 minutes.
Serve as is, with a sharp knife to cut the strings, or remove the mussels from the sauce and serve the sauce with pasta and the mussels separately.