Mussels in a rich tomato sauce

You’re hooked. You loved the pasta starter, now for the real fun. Start thinking. Start adding. Start creating havoc.

Pasta shapes were not all about bored artisans getting trendy, and offering the yuppies of the 12th century the pasta shape you need when you’re tired of spaghetti! More to the point: different shapes for different sauces. Think about it. Spaghetti is like the branches of a tree: there for the structure, holding the show together. But what of the leaves? There to soak up and hold, and feed.

There’s another way to think of the shapes of pasta. If you stick your thumb in a wet, clay-based soil it will leave an indentation. If it rains, the indentation will hold the moisture until some mad, thirsty dog comes along looking for a drink. The same applies to orecchiette, the fresh pasta that’s made with a twist of an old lady’s thumb, and means ‘little ears’.

And remember, always with great pasta dishes, the hand of the chef is obvious. You really should never see the sauce, other than in colour. Don’t overload the pasta with the sauce. It should do not much more than hold its own with the pasta: hold on to spaghetti, disappear into orecchiette.

1 x 250 mL can tomatoes (or use fresh tomatoes)

1 clove garlic, sliced roughly

1 small onion, sliced less roughly

1 hot chilli, chopped finely

olive oil

1 kg mussels – Toss away any with broken shells.

160 g orecchiette (allow 40 g dried pasta per person)


black pepper

plenty of fresh herbs – My choice in order of preference: basil, chives, tarragon.


Get organised. You need a pot of boiling, salted water for the pasta, and a largish pot, with a lid, for the mussels. You’ll also need a colander and a frying pan.


Use the canned tomatoes to make up a quantity of rich, thick tomato sauce. It is as simple as a can opener, a fork and a microwave. Break up the tomatoes with the fork and cook on high for 10-15 minutes. Beat again, but leave chunky. One 250 mL can will be enough for half a dozen serves of pasta.


In the pan, cook the garlic, onion and chilli in a little olive oil until the onion is soft – about 2 minutes. You might like to add a little more chilli here. Your taste. Set aside. This will be used in the dish as a surprise of flavour and texture in the middle of the palate. Don’t ever underestimate the sweetness and added value of a cooked onion.


The mussels are a cinch. Just toss them in the pot with a little water. Bring the water to the boil. Cover the pot and wait for the mussels to open – about 3 minutes. Drain, over a white-bottomed bowl, to retain the mussel ‘milk’, and allow to cool. Discard any mussels that failed to open: they were dead when you got them and, unless they were carrying death certificates, you really have no way of knowing how long they were in another world. For the rest, who have just joined their cousin, brother, sister, whatever, take them from their shells. Why, you ask, didn’t we cook the mussels over the onions, and kill two birds … ? Because the mussels carry plenty of sand, and sand is not one of my favourite supper dishes. Remove the mussels from the shells, pulling away their beards as you go.


While all this is happening, choose the right moment to cook the orecchiette in boiling, salted water, following the instructions on the packet. Drain.


Nearly there. Takes a lot of words, not a lot of time. Don’t think you’re into impossible territory with all these items to do. Transfer the onion mix to a pot and warm through. Add the tomato pulp, and spoon in the mussel ‘milk’ from the bowl. You will see the sand left sitting at the bottom of the white- bottomed bowl. Cook gently for about 5 minutes, stirring here and there. Taste as you go. You won’t need any more salt, but you will need black pepper.


Add the drained orecchiette and the mussels. Work it all together and add as much of the herbs as the pot will take, and serve. The idea here is that you will see more mussels than pasta. Not every pasta dish needs to be dominated by the pasta. Sometimes it’s the main player. This time it’s in the chorus. This dish does not need any cheese.

MUSSELS: Note that mussels should smell only of the sea. Sweetly, as though you were sitting at the end of a pier on a delicious spring afternoon.

WINE: A good rich chardonnay from the warmer growing areas, such as the Hunter, McLaren Vale or Barossa, is needed to counter the richness of the tomato sauce.