Mussels marinara is a quickly-prepared dish of mussels, a clam-like shellfish, served over pasta in a meatless tomato sauce. It’s a staple in many Italian restaurants, but it’s also a favorite in many households because it’s a flavorful and nutritious meal, economically and quickly prepared. As with most dishes, though, there are some guidelines that should be observed in the preparation. For example, the pasta used — preferably linguine or fettucine — should be cooked al dente.
Marinara sauce — “sailor’s sauce” in Italian — is a very simple sauce prepared with white wine, crushed canned tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and sometimes onions. Compared to tomato sauces that are simmered for hours, marinara sauce is cooked fairly quickly, usually resulting in a brighter reddish-orange color than longer-cooked tomato sauces. Some marinara sauces are prepared with anchovies for a seafood flavor, while others, intended for use with seafood, sometimes include a small amount of lemon juice.
The mussels used in mussels marinara should be as fresh as possible; ideally, they should be purchased within seven days of their harvest date, which is usually printed on the packaging. Like clams, mussels are bivalves that live inside two-sided shells; unlike clams, which are mobile, mussels prefer to attach to some stationary object. When harvested, mussels generally have a “beard” of a stringy substance that the mussels use to attach to piers, rocks or other structures in the water. This beard must be removed from each mussel; the most efficient method is to scrub each mussel with a wire brush and cut any remaining strings with a sharp knife.
Some mussels marinara recipes call for the sauce to be prepared first, to which the fresh, cleaned mussels are added. The pot is covered for a few moments and the mussels are steamed. Any mussels which don’t open in the steaming process are removed and discarded.
Another approach is to steam the mussels first, discarding the unopened shells, then add all the ingredients of the marinara sauce, cooking it briefly to let the flavors blend before serving over the pasta. This second method can be clumsy when trying to mix the different sauce ingredients in among the mussel shells. For this reason, some cooks will prepare the marinara sauce, prepare servings of mussels on a bed of pasta, and pour the marinara sauce over them.
Frozen cooked mussels are an adequate substitute for fresh-steamed, but there’s a noticeable difference both in flavor and in the consistency of the mussel meat. Cooks who use this approach should keep in mind that cooked mussels, like oysters, are very delicate. If overworked in a sauce, such as by being boiled or too vigorously stirred, they can fall apart. Prepared marinara sauces likewise can add to the convenience of the dish, but there’s a significant difference in flavor.
Mussels marinara over pasta can be served as a stand-alone dish or with a light salad. It should be served with plenty of warm crusty bread for wiping up the sauce, and a nice white wine. The considerate host will always provide large empty bowls to collect the empty mussel shells.