Mussels Carbonara – a pescetarian version of the classic Italian dish made with plump sustainable mussels and fresh linguine coated in a light sauce infused with the taste of the sea.
This little quick-cook dish is like a happy and contented marriage between two enduring, time-honoured recipes. The quintessential French moules meniere and the ever-popular Italian pasta carbonara.
Although the french might not be too thrilled about anybody messing with their moules meniere by adding in pasta, I reckon the Italians would probably be ok with me swapping out the bacon.
And it’s bacon that’s the key flavour in any carbonara recipe. Traditionally it’s guanciale (cured pig’s cheek) that’s used, but I’m betting most people use pancetta, I know I do.
Both of these cuts of pork are unsmoked, but they are cured, and if you’re looking for a similar salty kick then mussels are the ideal fishy replacement.
Mussels are filter feeders and it’s the reason for their innate saltiness. They feed by opening up and syphoning seawater through their systems catching any little plankton that happen to be floating by.
It’s also why they’re the number 1 sustainable seafood on the planet because unlike other forms of aquaculture they don’t need to be fed (I’m looking at you salmon and shrimp) With the added benefit that they leave the water in a cleaner state than they found it.
Mussels are now farmed worldwide because of their low impact and when it comes to sustainability and the environment it’s one seafood you don’t have to worry about and should definitely be eating more of.
About the only criticism, I’d have is that the tasty blue European mussels farmed around these parts can be a bit small and are easily overcooked.
They are capable of growing up to about 10cm in length but it would take years and it’s understandable that mussel farmers who need to recoup their investment harvest them at around half that size.
I can remember when I was a lad finding some enormous wild mussels when fishing in rock pools. Maybe I’m been a bit nostalgic but I seem to remember these bigger specimens tasting better.
We never did anything fancy with them either, and they’d be plump, briny, and delicious after a quick steam in a little seawater.
Wild mussels seem to have mostly disappeared from Ireland’s shoreline. And I reckon that people who know where there’s beds of wild mussels in pristine waters keep their location to themselves, I know I would.
The last time I went for a forage along the west coast I didn’t spot one and even if I did I’d have to think long and hard about picking and cooking it.
Because you can never really be sure just how clean the water it grew in is. And unless you know the area well it’s probably best to leave them where they are. The last thing anyone wants is a stomach doing somersaults after a feed of tasty shellfish.
Farmed mussels, on the other hand, present no such problems as their purified in clean water, treated with ultraviolet light, then tested for bacteria to make sure they are safe to eat before being sent to market.
The one thing that still amazes me is just how clean they are. Rarely will you find a barnacle that needs to be hacked off or a beard that needs to be pulled.
Whereas back in the day preparing mussels was one of the more mundane kitchen jobs given to enthusiastic commis chefs like myself who would have to spend a couple of hours scrubbing.
Now all you need to do is wash them in a couple of changes of cold water, pull out any stray beards, run your eye over them to pick out any dead ones, and their good to go in the pot.
Mussels Carbonara Sauce
And once in the pot, we’ll be cooking them very traditionally in a slug of white wine and some aromatics.
The resulting stock is liquid gold for fish cooks. It’s packed full of umami flavour with the unique essence of the sea and you should never let it drain down the kitchen sink.
Even if you don’t have a use for it straight away let it cool, pour it into some ice cube bags, and pop it in the freezer.
And whereas in a traditional carbonara you’d use some of the water the pasta was cooked in as a base for the sauce, this time you’ve got something with a more full-bodied flavour to toss your pasta in.
What About Cream In A Mussels Carbonara?
Traditionalists will tell you that cream has no place in a carbonara. In the regular version, the sauce simply consists of the pasta water thickened with the addition of a few rich egg yolks.
And you can do the exact same here with the intense mussel stock to produce a mouth-watering sauce to coat your pasta in.
However, I like to commit sacrilege and add about a cup of cream into my mussels carbonara before giving it a quick boil, adding the egg yolks, and tossing everything together.
A little cream adds to the richness of the finished dish, gives a more moist finish, and you’ll have a bit more sauce to mop up with a hunk of crusty bread.
But feel free to leave the cream out if you’re more calorie-conscious or want to keep the recipe true to its classic roots.
Where’s The Cheese?
You’ll no doubt notice that there’s not a grating of parmesan to be found in this mussels carbonara recipe. And you’re probably thinking I’m one of those guys that comes down on the no side of the ‘should you serve cheese with fish’ debate.
However, nothing could be further from the truth and there are some fish recipes where a nice ripe cheddar or a salty sprinkle of parmesan are definitely called for. Cod mornay or crab tart anyone?
And although it’s a classic component in most carbonara recipes it just doesn’t work here and makes the whole dish a bit too salty.
Remember the mussels are salty and so is the resulting cooking liquor. So pass on the parmesan this time and just season your pasta with a couple of turns of black pepper.
Mussels Carbonara – Alternative Fsh To Use
I’m well aware mussels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I think it’s the texture, more than the flavour, some people have a tough time with.
So, if you don’t like mussels try this dish with some smoked fish instead. It has the same salty component you need in a carbonara. Kippers, mackerel, or coley should all work well. But try to avoid smoked salmon unless it’s sustainable.
I used fresh linguini in my carbonara. I love the way it cooks in a heartbeat but feel free to use any pasta you have in your kitchen cupboard. Penne, spaghetti, or tagliatelle are all good
Of course, shellfish and pasta are a classic combo and this handy little dish is another one you can add to your repertoire. It’s super quick and easy to knock up, Ideal for a quick lunch or a late supper.
What’s your favourite shellfish and pasta combo?Print
- 800g / 1.7lbs mussels
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 6 large shallots (finely sliced)
- 2 cloves of garlic (minced)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig of thyme
- 125ml / 1 cup white wine
- 300g / 10.5oz linguini
- 230ml / 1 cup of cream
- 4 large eggs yolks (beaten)
- Scrub the mussels shells clean and pull out any beards. Then wash them thoroughly in a couple of changes of cold water to remove any sand or grit.
- Dump any you come across that are open and don’t close with a tap on the side of the sink. They’re dead already and you definitely don’t want to eat them.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the shallots and garlic and saute gently for 3/4 minutes without colour.
- Turn the heat under the pan to maximum and add in the mussels, thyme, bay, and white wine.
- Cover with a tight-fitting lid and steam the mussels for about 3 minutes until the shells begin to pop open.
- Pull the pot of mussels to the side of the stove and keep the lid on to allow them to finish cooking while you cook your pasta.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil and throw in the linguini. Cook for approximately 2 minutes till al dente.
- Once cooked drain the pasta from the water and add it to the mussels. Pour in the cream then place the pan back on the heat and toss everything together making sure the pasta gets well coated in the mussel sauce.
- Stir in the beaten egg and mix well then pull the pan from the heat to stop the eggs scrambling.
- Season with a couple of twists of black pepper and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil then serve a.s.a.p with some crusty bread and a glass of your favourite pinot grigio.