Saffron Mussels (Cozze al Zafferano)

I love mussels. They can be steamed in all kinds of broths and served with crusty bread. Adding saffron to the mix of ingredients reminds me of the African and Arab influences that came up the Italian peninsula from Sicily. And unlike the French version of this dish, there’s no butter used.

This recipe may frustrate the reader because it calls for “pinches” of ingredients and “a bit of this or that”. As I’ve come to learn from a show on the Cooking Channel, in Italy, this is referred to as “quanto basta”.  This means simply “as much as you need”. This approach is mostly found with recipes that are hard to foul up.  So give this one a try and play with the amounts as you like.

Makes 2 servings for a dinner meal or 4 for an appetizer.

Ingredients and Directions

  • 2 pounds of mussels (see note)
  • A splash of extra-virgin olive oil (maybe 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 leek
  • Some white wine (maybe 1 cup)
  • Lemon juice (perhaps the juice of 1 lemon)
  • A small bunch of herbs (bay leaf, half a dozen sprigs of parsley, 3 sprigs of thyme) tied with kitchen twine
  • A little more white wine in a glass (maybe a 1/4 cup)
  • A pinch of saffron (no way to describe this one, just maybe 10 strands of saffron that you pinch between two fingers)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Crusty Italian bread

Special Equipment: A large heavy pot (i.e., a cast iron dutch oven).

Note: Buying fresh mussels is incredibly important for this dish. Buy ones that are closed and don’t smell fishy. Make the person that you buy the mussels from pick through them to find the good ones (closed and no chips). P.S., you still have to clean them.

  1. Clean the mussels. Under slow running cold water, pull off the beards (the hairy Brillo-looking things). Scrape the outside of the mussels to remove any major barnacle buildup. I just use my fingernails. You could use a brush.
  2. Prepare the leek by cutting off just the white and light green parts and discarding the rest. Cut the leek in half lengthwise thru the root end. Run each half under cold water, as leeks tend to attach sand between the leaves. Using a sharp knife, slice each leek half from the cut end to the root at 1/4-inch intervals. Discard the root.
  3. In the heavy pot, add the olive oil and heat over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the leeks and saute for about 5 minutes until they become soft. Because you just washed the leeks, they will splatter a bit in the oil. Be careful not to burn, but saute until the leek is soft — stir occasionally.
  4. Add the white wine, lemon juice and the herb bundle to the heavy pot.
  5. Heat the remaining white wine (in a microwave for 30 seconds is the simplest approach). Add the saffron to the hot white wine and let steep for about 5 minutes. Then add to the mixture in the heavy pot.
  6. Simmer the whole mixture letting the flavors blend and the mixture reduce. Remove the herb bundle and discard.
  7. Add the cleaned mussels and cover the heavy pot. Steam the mussels until the fully open (about -4 minutes). Gently stir a few times with a wooden or other soft spoon. Discard any mussels that do not open.
  8. Serve by placing equal amounts of mussels in bowls and then ladling the broth over the mussels.
  9. Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

Join the Conversation

  1. I love mussels! was the saffron very prominent? it says only a pinch, but I know what a strong flavor it can give

    1. Thanks for the post. Saffron can be very strong so in this case, a pinch, would be no more than about 10 strands. The idea is to give it a subtle background taste.

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