This classic and typical Galician preparation is especially good on a hot summer day when the mussels can be cooked very quickly and then served cold. It’s commonly served as a starter or side, or just as a snack alongside a nice white wine.
This recipe, like many Galician approaches to their seafood, is very simple, and all about showing off the fantastic shellfish. The red and green bell peppers, the orange-pink flesh of the mussels, and the blue and black shells make for a beautiful, colorful presentation for a ridiculously easy dish.
I don’t know why, but the mussels are just better from Galicia. They get so much bigger, plumper, and more flavorful than the mussels that I get in the USA. The size, I assume, is simply the result of them being grown for a bit more time than most American shellfish farmers allow. There must be something special about that area of the Atlantic coast, though, that makes them so intensely flavorful.
A side story
Shellfish farming is very popular in Galicia. Growing platforms are set up in arrays around the rias (the large narrow ocean inlets along the Galician coast). In Ria de Arousa, Rosa and I took a boat tour out of O Grove, where we were shown some of the farming operation. For 15€ per person, we got the hour and a half boat tour of the Ria (including lots of beautiful views, and dolphins following the boat). We learned about how the mussels, scallops, and oysters were grown on long ropes off of the platforms, and then harvested from the ropes.
Even better, though, was on the boat, included in the tour price, we were served all the mussels we could eat, cooked al vapor (steamed in their own juices with a little wine), while the boat was out. Also included were bottles of good Galician wine to wash down the food. They brought us tray after tray of the mussels, 1kg (a little more than 2 lbs) of mussels at a time. Between Rosa and I, her sister, brother-in-law, and their young kids, we went through seven trays of the mussels, along with 2 bottles of wine, on the hour and a half trip.
2 lbs of live mussels, shells scrubbed clean, and beards removed
Oil for cooking
2 bay leaves
¼ cup dry white wine (or use water)
½ small green bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed, cut in very small dice (brunoise)
½ small red bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed, cut in very small dice (brunoise)
½ small red onion, peeled, and cut in very small dice (brunoise)
¼ cup red wine vinegar (or substitute apple cider vinegar)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper TT
1. Cook the mussels “al vapor”: Put a large, heavy-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid on a medium-high flame. When hot, add in enough oil to barely coat the bottom of the pan. Add in the cleaned mussels, the bay leaves, and wine (or water). Put the lid back on, and let cook just until the mussels begin to open. Use a pair of tongs to remove each mussel as soon as it opens. Set aside the cooked mussels to cool down to room temperature. When cooled to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and keep cold in the fridge until ready to serve. Reserve any remaining cooking liquid.
Note: It is essential to not overcook the mussels. They will be at their best, most plump and juicy, right as they open. If you leave them to cook while the others open up, they will just shrivel up and dry out. Remove them as soon as they open!
2. Make the vinaigrette: While the mussels are cooling down, combine the diced bell pepper and onion, vinegar, oil, and leftover cooking liquid from the mussels. Season with salt and black pepper.
3. To serve: Remove the top half of the shells and arrange the mussels on a tray or large plate. Spoon a generous amount of the vinaigrette over the top of each mussel. Serve cold, immediately.