We never met a recipe by food and travel writer Robyn Eckhardt that we haven’t totally loved, so her new cookbook is a much-anticipated treat. Dive head-first into this in-depth study of Turkish cuisine, and find a new favorite way to prepare all kinds of versatile ingredients. These Turkish rice-stuffed mussels are a great way to renew your love of sustainable shellfish.
In this cold appetizer from the Armenian deli Tadal, mussels are stuffed with slowly caramelized onions, dried currants, and pine nuts. Caramelizing onions the traditional way, as is done at Tadal, takes a good hour or so of slow, watchful cooking over low heat. Instead I use a technique developed by Kenji López-Alt, described in his tome The Food Lab, that speeds up the process by starting the onions in melted sugar and adding baking soda with the oil to speed their softening. In the latter stages of caramelization, the onions are cooked over higher heat; adding water periodically keeps them from burning. The recipe is best done in stages. Start at least one day ahead by making the rice filling (the longer the rice is left to absorb the other flavors, the better it will taste). Then stuff the mussels (a task made easier if you have a helper to open the mussels as you fill them), steam them, and let cool completely, at least 9 hours.
- 3/4 cup short- or medium-grain rice, such as Baldo or CalRose (not basmati)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 3 large red onions, minced (about 4 cups)
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
- 1/4 cup dried currants, soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1 to 1 1/4 pounds mussels, cleaned
- fine sea salt
- lemon wedges, for serving
For the filling
Place the rice in a medium bowl, add water to cover, and swish the rice with your fingers to remove excess starch. Carefully drain off the water, add fresh water, and swish the rice again; repeat until the water remains clear. Add water to cover and set aside.
Melt the sugar in a wide heavy pot (I use a 5-quart Dutch oven) over medium heat and cook until the caramel is light brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onions and stir to coat. Stir in the baking soda, olive oil, and 1 teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until a glaze forms on the bottom of the pot, about 8 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water and stir to deglaze. Repeat the process three more times; after the last addition of water, cook the onions until all of the liquid has evaporated. The onions will be the color of dark toast.
Add the tomato paste and 2 tablespoons water and stir to coat the onions. Add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, the cumin, pepper, currants, and pine nuts and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the pot. Add ¼ cup of the water and cook, stirring often, until the water has evaporated and you’re left with a brick-red, jammy mixture surrounded by crimson oil.
Drain the rice and add it to the pot, along with the remaining water. Cook, stirring often and scraping up any bits sticking to the bottom of the pot, until the water is mostly absorbed. Add ¼ cup more water and stir it into the rice mixture. Taste a bit of the liquid for salt and pepper and add more of either if needed. Bring the liquid to a boil, stir the rice once, and remove from the heat. Cover the pot and set aside until the rice has cooled completely, 1 to 1½ hours; stir the rice two or three times while it’s cooling, replacing the lid each time.
For the mussels
Fill a bowl large enough to accommodate the mussels with warm water. Add salt, about 1 tablespoon per quart of water, and stir to dissolve. Place the mussels in the water, adding more warm water if needed to keep the water temperature up. After 5 minutes, the mussels should begin to open.
Hold a mussel firmly in one hand and insert a paring knife between the top and bottom shells at the rounded end. Move the knife around the shell and slice through part of the hinge muscle, just far enough to open the shell about an inch. Try not to cut all the way through, so that the top and bottom shells remain attached. Repeat with the remaining mussels.
Choose a wide lidded pan or a pot large enough to accommodate the mussels, ideally in a single layer, or in no more than two or three layers. With a small spoon and/or your fingers, fill a mussel loosely with some of the rice; the filling should come to the edges of the shell, but pack it in loosely to leave room for expansion during steaming. Gently press the shell halves together (they will not close all the way), wipe any rice off the outside of the shell with your fingers, and place the mussel in the pan. Repeat until all of the mussels are stuffed, laying them side by side and stacking them if necessary.
Add about ½ inch water to the pan; do not let the water reach the openings in the mussels’ shells. Bring the water to a boil, then lay a piece of parchment paper over the mussels and weight it down with a heatproof plate. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and steam until the rice is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Check the water level after 10 minutes and add more if necessary. Remove the pan from the heat, uncover it, and remove the plate. Let the mussels cool completely beneath the parchment paper, 1 to 2 hours, depending on the size of your pan.
Transfer the pan to the refrigerator and chill at least 8 hours and preferably overnight. Serve the mussels cold, with lemon wedges.