What the staff eats before the restaurant opens: Baked Mussels with Saffron and Tomatoes

by Terry B on November 30, 2011

Adapted from a staff meal at Atlanta’s Bacchanalia, mussels are quickly baked over sautéed scallions, garlic, parsley, oregano, saffron and tomatoes. Recipe below.

Open kitchens in restaurants are popular for one reason: We all like a peek behind the culinary curtain into the world of chefs, sous chefs, line cooks and even dishwashers. And I’m not just speaking of high-end restaurants where tables in the kitchen come at a premium price. I remember a lunch years ago at the counter at Heaven on Seven in Chicago, watching line cooks crank out order after order with practiced skill, plating the food beautifully and effortlessly and tossing used skillets, still hot, into a deep stainless sink. The hostess apologized for not having a table for me during the busy lunch hour, but I was in, well, heaven at the counter.

So imagine my delight when I heard about Marissa Guggiana’s new cookbook, Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, published last month by Welcome Books. This is the ultimate peek behind the curtain. It’s not just watching chefs cook, it’s getting to see what they cook for their staffs before the restaurant opens.

To write Off the Menu, Guggiana traveled the country, visiting the kitchens of more than 50 top restaurants, sampling and documenting staff meals. The result is this beautiful cookbook with more than 100 recipes, all adapted for the home cook. Thoughtful writing and charming photos—more than 160 of them—give readers an intimate glimpse of life in professional kitchens.

Guggiana is a food activist, writer and fourth generation meat purveyor. In 2011, she co-founded The Butcher’s Guild, a national organization promoting and supporting artisanal butchery. Her first book, Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers, profiles fifty innovative whole-animal butchers and chefs and shares their most impressive recipes.

For my first Off the Menu meal, I chose a recipe by Russ Moore, chef/owner of Camino in Oakland, California and former chef at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse’s Café. The recipe is based on his Baked Clams with Chilies, Saffron and Tomatoes. Moore uses his house-canned tomatoes. I used purchased canned tomatoes—and more available, more affordable mussels.

Baked Mussels with Saffron and Tomatoes
Serves 2 to 3

2 pounds mussels
3 scallions
3 sprigs flat Italian parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more, to taste)
2 bay leaves
pinch of saffron threads
1 cup diced canned tomatoes, mostly drained
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup white wine
splash of water

grilled bread

Preheat oven to 450ºF. Scrub mussels with a brush under cold running water and debeard them, pulling off any threads on the hinge side. Discard any open mussels that don’t close shortly after being tapped on the counter.

Slice scallions on a diagonal into 1-inch pieces, including the green tops. Pick leaves from parsley sprigs—you want about 1/3 cup, loosely packed. Heat olive oil in a large, ovenproof sauté pan over medium-high flame. Add scallions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften and brown slightly, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, bay leaves and saffron to the pan and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about five minutes. Onions and garlic will brown alarmingly—that’s okay (see Kitchen Notes).

Add tomatoes, parsley leaves and oregano to pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. There will be lots of spattering at first. That is also okay, but you may want an apron. Add wine and a splash of water. Again with the spattering. Add mussels, as much in a single layer as possible. Transfer pan to oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes, or until mussels open. (Discard any that don’t open.)

Meanwhile, grill some bread. Heat a grilling pan over medium-high flame. Brush the pan and some slices of bread with olive oil. grill the bread for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Depending on the size of the bread, you want about 2 slices per serving to sop up the delicious juices of this dish.

Divide mussels among shallow serving bowls and spoon tomatoes and juices over them. Serve. Alternatively, you can serve them in one big communal bowl. In any case, make sure you have a large bowl for discarding the shells. By the way, a shell half is a fun, decadent utensil for scooping up any of the delicious broth you don’t sop up with the grilled bread.

Kitchen Notes

Don’t fear the darkness. When it comes to vegetables and aromatics, I’ve always been about sweating or maybe lightly browning. The scallions in this dish definitely browned and even got charred in places. Some of the garlic slices blackened. Some of the tomatoes started sticking to the pan a bit. That’s not only okay, it’s a good thing. It gave a wonderful depth and edge to the dish. In fact, hours after cooking this meal, I’m not smelling mussels in the kitchen. I’m smelling well cooked scallions. They smell delicious.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) November 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm

What’s not to love about this dish? I’ve often wondered whether, in fact, some of the best cooking happens before the restaurant opens, at these staff meals. The meals, often cooked by line cooks or sous chefs, might not resemble the cuisine the restaurant serves, but often comes from the heart.

altadenahiker November 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I had five small dinner-parties this summer and served mussels at every one. They’re so fool-proof. But oven-baking? I can’t wait to try this. (I use habanero in the sauce. Given all the ingredients and sauce involved, the heat is lovely.)

Terry B November 30, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Lydia, I think you’re absolutely right. That said, I was amused to read recently that at Alinea, Grant Achatz’s temple of molecular gastronomy, the staff meal will sometimes be sandwiches from Chicago fast food chain Potbelly.

Altadenahiker—Mussels are totally foolproof! Cheap too and one of the greenest seafood choices you can make. Regarding peppers, the original recipe called for chihuacle chiles (or anchos, as a substitute). Having neither on hand, I substituted the crushed red pepper flakes. Habaneros would be perfect, I think!

kitchenriffs November 30, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I love well-browned onions and garlic! I learned to appreciate their flavor when I started cooking Indian food – so many recipes call for browned onions. Although I did have difficulty wrapping my head around that concept at first, I must admit. It used to be the only time I’d really cook onions for longer than the lightly browned stage (if even that) was when I made onion soup. Anyway, they sound delicious in this dish. Love the combo of onion, garlic, mussels, and tomato. Saffron is a nice bonus. Great dish.

Sounds like an interesting book. It’s difficult for many homes cooks – me, at least – to duplicate some of the creativity found in restaurant dishes simply because of the required time, skill, or ingredient costs. For staff meals the same culinary imagination is at work, but because the meals are more straightforward and simple, they’re more like what we (I) typically cook at home. More accessible, I guess I’m trying to say. I’ll have to check this out. Good post – thanks.

[email protected] December 6, 2011 at 12:35 am

I didn’ t get fed like this when I was a server, but they deserve it. Looks fantastic and I like when servers are treated well.

Rita - Comfortisse Bra December 6, 2011 at 3:01 am

This sounds like a great recipe. I’m actually leaving to italy in a few months and i love collecting mussels off rocks and then cooking them.

kitty December 7, 2011 at 4:25 am

hm! This recipe looks simple and authentic. I am tempted to try it.
We’re a little afraid of cooking seafood. Actually, Mark is the one who is afraid. He thinks that the shells and such will be smelly afterwards. Maybe he had a bad experience?

I’ll try this in the next week or so. There is hope!!

Terry B December 8, 2011 at 4:17 am

Kitchenriffs—Indian cuisine is one we keep meaning to explore more than we have so far. We love eating it, but are looking for an approachable cookbook with recipes that seem doable. Any suggestions?

Angela, I understand that many restaurants don’t do staff meals. With the expense and time involved, I certainly understand. But in those places that do, I have to imagine that the bonding runs deep.

Thanks for stopping by, Rita!

Thanks, Kitty! I know what you mean about cooking seafood when cold weather forces us to keep windows closed. And with fish like salmon, it can be an issue. Mussels are less of a problem. As I said at the end of the post, hours after cooking this dish, I didn’t smell mussels in the kitchen—I smelled the scallions, in a good way.

kitchenriffs December 8, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Terry, my absolutely favorite Indian cookbook – my first – Was the 1982 Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. This book accompanied a BBC TV series she gave. The book is short (200 pages) and pretty basic – but every recipe in there is a winner. Only complaint is sometimes the procedure is a bit confusing – but you know how to cook, so that’s not a problem. Sometimes you can find used copies of this. Amazon lists a similarly-titled book with a 2002 copyright (http://www.amazon.com/Madhur-Jaffrey-Indian-Cooking/dp/0764156497/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323360319&sr=1-4). I assume this is an updated version – and the reviews are pretty good. I also find that everything by Julie Sahni is pretty good. For me the biggest challenge in Indian cooking was wrapping my head around how to spice things. It doesn’t help that India has so many different regional cuisines, and often they are quite different. I tend to like the flavor profiles of some of the northern dishes, but the spicy heat of the southern. And although I love the vegetarian dishes, I tend to shy about from the famous Lord Krishna’s Cuisine because it doesn’t use garlic or onions, which I love (Vedic cuisine says these are a no no for religious reasons). Anyway, back to the spices – once you kind of figure out what combinations you like, you’ll probably find yourself just making up dishes using those spice combos. Or changing recipes to reflect how you like your food to taste. Best thing about Indian dishes is a lot of the veggie ones are great with big meat roasts – particularly some of the potato, cauliflower, and green bean recipes. So you can ease your way into learning to cooking Indian food – you don’t have to produce an all-Indian meal all at once.

Terry B December 8, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Thanks so much, Kitchenriffs! I just went to the library website and ordered two Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks. I know Marion has gotten her books in the past, but I haven’t paid much attention to them. Now I will.

We’re big fans of mixing and matching cuisines in one meal, so your suggestion sounds perfect. We’re also fans of using Indian spices, even when we’re not cooking Indian food. The second dish I posted on Blue Kitchen, in fact, was a pot roast flavored with biryani curry paste. Another example of this borrowing is my oatmeal raisin cookies with garam masala.

Squid December 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

What a great idea for a cookbook! I love mussels and we have access to great fresh Penn Cove beauties here in Tacoma, WA, so this recipe is going on the “must try soon” list immediately. My best day volunteering in the kitchen of a local eatery was when they let me make staff meal. It was a simple linguine with tomato sauce and shrimp thrown in and I was bursting my jacket buttons when the staff devoured it…

Great blog by the way. Hope you don’t mind if I link it to mine…

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