Summertime's great not just for the fresh produce in farmer's markets, but for the abundant local seafood here in New Jersey -- including mussels that I love to serve with pasta in a red sauce. But this isn't just any pasta and this isn't just any red sauce.
The tomatoes are from Italy and really do taste superior to the canned tomatoes grown in the U.S. They'll cost you more, but it's worth it. The ones I used were flavorful pomodorini from the Campania region, labeled as cherry tomatoes, but I'd say they are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes. You can buy them online from Gustiamo.com.
And don't expect to pair your glorious tomato sauce with insipid, limp pasta. Get something that has some bite to it and really tastes like wheat. In this case, I cooked with pasta from Benedetto Cavalieri, an artisanal pasta company that began more than 100 years ago in Puglia, Italy.
I met the fourth generation pasta maker in the family - Andrea - at New York City's Fancy Food Show last month, and he proudly described the methods that are used in the production of their durum semolina pasta.
The pasta is made using what's called the "delicate method" which means kneading the dough at cold temperatures, pressing it slowly through molds made of bronze alloys and drying it at low temperature. "This is very, very important," he said, "Because with the delicate method we can preserve the typical taste of the wheat."
The pasta really does hold up well to an assertive sauce and has a fine, toothsome bite and distinctive wheat flavor.
Benedetto Cavalieri pastas can be purchased at Sur La Table or other fine food stores, as well as through Amazon.com, among other places.
Start out by sautéing the onion and garlic in olive oil until softened, then add the jar of tomatoes, breaking them up slightly with a wooden spoon.
Add the white wine and seasonings and let simmer on low to medium heat for about 1/2 hour to 1 hour. Meanwhile, steam the mussels in another pot and remove them from the pot as soon as they start to open. When the mussels are cool enough to handle, remove most of them from their shells, leaving some still in the shell to decorate the top of the pasta bowl. Save the liquid the mussels cooked in, then strain it and use put some of that into the tomato sauce. When the sauce has thickened to the proper consistency, (and while the pasta is cooking), add the mussels you removed from the shells to the tomato sauce and simmer for a couple of minutes.
Drain the pasta, then add it to the pot with the sauce and stir to blend the flavors.
Serve in warmed bowls or plates.
Penne Pasta with Mussels
1 lb. pasta (preferably Benedetto Cavalieri pasta or a similar artisanal, Italian brand)
for the sauce
1/8 cup olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jar Maida Pomodorino Corbarino (or a 23.9 ounce jar of tomatoes)
1/4 cup white wine
a good handful of fresh basil leaves, minced
a shake of hot red pepper flakes
to cook the mussels:
2 T. olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup white wine
3 to 4 dozen mussels
Start by making the sauce. Pour the olive oil into a pot, and add the onion, cooking them on low heat until softened. Add the garlic and sauté until softened. Add the tomatoes, breaking slightly with a wooden spoon, then the wine and seasonings. Keep some basil aside to use at the last minute to sprinkle over the top at the end. Let everything simmer for a half hour to an hour, while you cook the mussels.
In a separate pot, add the olive oil and cook the onion and garlic until slightly softened, over low heat. Turn up the heat to high when the onion and garlic are softened, pour in the white wine and add all the mussels. Place a lid over the mussels, and in a few minutes, they should start to open. Take off the lid, and using a pincers, remove the mussels that have opened to a bowl. Continue to do so until you have removed all the mussels. Save the liquid. Some of them may not open, even after five minutes. Throw those out. Let the mussels cool to a point where you can handle them, and remove them from the shell, keeping some intact to decorate the bowl with later. Strain the liquid through a coffee filter (or paper towels) and pour some of it - maybe 1/2 cup to a cup) into the pot with the tomato sauce. Turn up the heat and cook a little longer to thicken the sauce.
When the sauce is cooked enough to the proper consistency and the pasta is almost finished cooking, add the mussels that you have extracted from the shells and let them simmer in the tomato sauce for a few minutes while you drain the pasta.
Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to combine flavors. Serve in warm bowls or plates with some of the mussels in half shells on top.