When visiting Thessaloniki and the surrounding areas, chances are you’ll dine at one of the many tavernas that offer fish and seafood. Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city and its port is located on the Thermaic Gulf.
Upon sitting down with your friends, the waiter will clean and set your table, bring bottles of water and offer the day’s specials and recommendations. After hearing the tantalizing list of choices, mezedes are ordered: grilled octopus, deep-fried calamari, salads like taramasalata, melitzanosalata, Htipiti, a Horiatiki (Greek salad), a few orders of fries, some grilled sardines or fried fresh anchovies, shrimp saganaki, and always, always, always…mussels saganaki.
There are a few rivers that empty into the Thermaic Gulf and nearby you will find mussel farms that feed the demand of the seafood industry in the area. The denizens in and around Thessaloniki eat alot of mussels – so much that one can even buy bags of shucked mussel meat in salt water…that’s convenience!
Mussels Saganaki is always ordered when we go to a Psarotaverna (fish & seafood) tavern. Saganaki refers to any dish served in the two-handled vessel (it’s more than just the flaming cheese dish). Think tajine or paella…it can mean the vessel and the dish contained in t he vessel. So many options.
The very essence of Mussels Saganaki are the mussel meat themselves, very ripe tomatoes passed through the box grater, a hot banana pepper, some crumbled Feta cheese and dried Greek oregano. That’s it!
It’s very important to use ripe, delicious tomatoes in this dish however, in the real world, tasty tomatoes are not always available but another valuable Greek ingredient comes to the rescue – tomato paste.
As mentioned above, one can buy fresh shucked mussels in a bag in the Thessaloniki area (you can tell people make Mussels Saganaki alot). That convenience is not available to most of us but this dish is just as easily prepared using fresh mussels in their shell.
All one has to do is scrub and clean the mussels, steam then open and shuck the mussel meat out. Reserve that mussel broth though, it only makes this dish all the tastier.
This dish is served most commonly with Ouzo or Tsipouro (a home-distilled eau de vie with or without the anise flavouring). Lots of bread are called for here, it would be a sin to leave behind all that tasty sauce behind.
My trip to Greece tick-tocks closer and closer. The sights, the sounds, the smells and tastes are all coming back to me. I will be having Mussels Saganaki on many occasions.
For those of you not going to Greece, I give you an authentic taste of Thessaloniki, a taste of Greece…..Mussels Saganaki!
Mussels Saganaki (ÎœÏÎ´Î¹Î± ÏƒÎ±Î³Î±Î½Î¬ÎºÎ¹)
(makes 2 appetizer servings)
1lb of fresh mussels, shucked
1/4 cup of olive oil
2 ripe medium-sized tomatoes
(or 1 Tbsp. of tomato paste dilluted in 1/2 cup of water)
2 Tbsp. of dried Greek oregano
1 hot banana pepper
1/3 cup of crumbled Feta cheese
- Rinse your mussels under cold tap water. If any mussels are broken, discard them and if you see any slightly open, gently tap them. If they close, they are alive and if not – then they are dead and therefore you must also discard them. Pull the beards from the mussels and brush off any barnacles that may be on the shell surface. Rinse under cold water and place in a strainer (with a plate) underneath and store in the fridge for up to 1 day.
- When you are ready to cook your mussels, place them in a bowl with water and a little bit of flour. The mussels are alive, will breath and any sand they spit out will adhere to the flour and sink to the bottom of the bowl. After 30 minutes, rinse the mussels and reserve.
- Place a skillet on your stove-top over high heat and add the olive oil and the mussels. Cover and allow the mussels to steam. They will release their own liquid and steam open after 3-5 minutes. Remove the mussels from the heat and allow to cool a bit so you can safely shuck the mussel meat.
- Pluck the mussel meat out of the their shells and reserve some mussels in their shells for presentation. Discard any mussels that did not open and reserve your mussel meat and the juices (liqueur).
- In the same skillet over high heat, add the liqueur back in along with the grated tomatoes (or tomato paste diluted in water) and slices of hot banana pepper. Once the liquid comes to a boil, reduce to medium and simmer until your sauce has thickened to a loose sauce.
- Add your mussels and gently stir in. Allow them to warm in the sauce for a couple of minutes. Now add your crumbled Feta and dried Greek oregano and plate in two serving dishes.
- Serve immediately with lots of crusty bread, sip on some Ouzo or Tsipouro and be transported to a seaside taverna in Greece.
Note: Salt and pepper are really not needed here. The mussels and Feta cheese provide all the salt needed in the dish and as for pepper, the hot banana pepper takes care of the heat aspect.
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