Temperatures in Athens have reached the mid-90s this week and my kitchen is hot. Opening the refrigerator door has become an exercise in control because when I do, I tend to find reasons for extending my stay like rummaging for a long-forgotten cube of cheddar or developing a sudden need to reorganize our hot sauce collection. It’s probably time I invested in a pool membership, I realize.
The warm weather has also affected our appetites. When the heat spikes, I want to spend as little time as possible boiling sauce or pulling roasted vegetables from an inferno oven. I also crave food that won’t increase my body temperature the way cooked beans and stewed meats do. My husband has switched to preparing grilled foods exclusively and I won’t consider recipes with more than 30 minutes of cooking time. Enter Mussel Pilaf, or μυδοπίλαφο in Greek, my ultimate summer rice and mussel dish.
I made my acquaintance with mussel pilaf during a Clean Monday lunch in March about six years ago, in a restaurant on Piraeus’s Mikrolimano (small port). Clean Monday is the official start of the Orthodox Lenten fast which excludes meat, dairy, eggs, and fish for forty days. The Greeks have turned this first day of deprivation into a national holiday when families and friends have lunch together over seafood, legume, and fried vegetable dishes.
On that particular Clean Monday the temperature was cold but the sun shone and we sat in a glass-enclosed dining area right on the port. Someone ordered mussel pilaf as an afterthought, a shared appetizer before the main course. When the pilaf arrived, I spooned a small heap of herbed rice overflowing with mussels onto my dish. Light and quenched with ouzo, I felt I could eat the entire shared portion. I stopped myself but for naught. When the server delivered the main course, I glanced at the mussel pilaf—it was still in its serving dish, half-eaten. I promised that one day I would learn how to make mussel pilaf and give it the attention it deserved.
For my husband and me that day came last week. We were looking for a light, easy dinner after a weekend of some indulgence and I remembered the mussel pilaf. Mussels are cheap and, if farmed, easy to clean and prepare (wild ones are much dirtier and require a good amount of scrubbing). They bring the taste of the sea home without much effort or a blow to our budget. Also, the cooking involved is minimal; only about 5 minutes to steam the mussels and 20 minutes to cook the rice. Exactly the kind of summer dish we like.
Mussel pilaf is one of those dishes that every cook has her own recipe for. Sometimes it is made with a tomato base but the one we had in Mikrolimano was white and on the dry side so I based my recipe off of it. Without butter or cheese, the mussel pilaf below has a clean, restorative flavor. The mussels digest easily which is great if you’re like me and enjoy a good after-dinner walk to take advantage of nighttime’s coolness. And since you were good and ate your seafood, go ahead, stop for some ice cream.
*Farm-raised mussels are unlikely to need a lot of cleaning. Just rinse them in running water and remove their beards (the hairy bits that stick out from the shell) by tugging the strings toward the shell’s hinge. Serious Eats does a great explanation of how to prepare mussels for cooking here.
**You may notice that I don’t call for salt in this recipe. This is because the pilaf gets cooked with some of the liquid used for steaming the mussels which can make the dish pretty salty. Taste the pilaf once it is cooked and season to your preference.
*** In my blog post, I mentioned that the first mussel pilaf I tasted probably contained ouzo. I decided not to use it in the recipe below but I think it would be worth a try. I plan on testing it at some point but if you do, please let me know how it worked.
Also this brings me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask, have you got any hot-weather, minimal cooking recipes? What are they?
3 ½ pounds (1 ½ kilograms) fresh, uncooked mussels in shells
½ cup olive oil
½ cup grated onions
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup white wine
1 ½ cup white, long grain rice
½ cup dill, finely chopped
juice from ½ a lemon
freshly ground pepper
a pinch of cayenne, optional
- Rinse the mussels and remove their beards. Place the mussels in a pot and add about 3 inches of water, enough to create steam. Set the pot over high heat and cover until the shells open, about five minutes. Remove the mussels from the pot. Strain and reserve up to 1 ½ cups of the cooking liquid.
- Remove the mussels from their shells with a fork and set aside. Reserve about 16 mussels in their shells for garnish, if you like.
- In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet cook the onions and garlic in the olive oil over high heat until golden. Add the rice and stir to coat with the oil; cook for 1-2 minutes until the rice smells toasty. Add the white wine and stir until most of the liquid has evaporated. Mix in the reserved 1 ½ cups cooking liquid from the mussels and 1 ½ cups hot water (if you had less than 1 ½ cups of broth after cooking, add enough hot water to equal 3 cups), stir to combine. Reduce the heat and cover, allowing the rice to simmer slowly until it has softened, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the pan from the heat and gently stir in the reserved mussels, dill, lemon juice, cayenne, and pepper. Season with salt if needed. If the rice is not fully cooked at this point, cover the rice again and set aside for 5-10 minutes. Spoon the pilaf into shallow bowls and garnish with the reserved mussels in their shells. Mussel pilaf is delicious served warm or cold.