Rich and warming with a nicely fiery bite, this mussels saganaki recipe is an exceptional winter dish, but delicious any time of year. Unmistakably Greek, it’s one of those rare starters that is equally outstanding when served as an elegantly simple main course. It really is that good.
Taverna. It’s a Greek word. And it represents something that is brightly woven into the country’s food-loving, social culture. A taverna is quite different from a restaurant: “The taverna is cheaper; you can eat well and usually outdoors, and it is as friendly as a club.” (Lawrence Durrell, The Greek Islands.)
Clubbish, local tavernas are as much eateries as they are leisurely gathering places for everyone in the vicinity. The food and drink served is an important part of a taverna because they’re the binding that holds together a bigger, communal whole. And this mussels saganaki dish is classic taverna fare.
Mussels saganaki — midia saganaki in Greek
Top the richly sauced mussels with coarsely crumbled feta cheese and a sprinkle of fresh dill and parsley. Result? It’s laughing friendship in a bowl. Especially when there’s plenty of fresh, crusty, olive bread — with butter for me, please — to eagerly mop up every last drop of the mussels’ sauce.
Although the name might sound perhaps sort of Japanese to a non-Greek speaker, mussels saganaki comes from a type of small, heavy, iron skillet (called a ‘saganaki’) that’s used to cook a variety of traditional starters and appetizers — including midia — mussels.
And this is a knockout starter. In fact, it’s so good that our recipe has up-sized it to a main course that will amply satisfy four smiling eaters. Just halve the ingredients and hold back on the bread if you prefer to make your mussels saganaki as a starter.
The mussels are definitely the centerpiece here. They keep the very best of their flavor and texture because they only get a few minutes’ cooking right at the end.
As for the sauce, well, for me, it’s there to be scooped- up in my first-emptied half-shell, and dunked into with buttery hunks of olive bread. This is seriously hands-on eating. It’s food with passionate honesty, full of classic Mediterranean herbs and spices like oregano and dill. And then there’s the heat from cayenne chilies. If those are too spicy, red serrano peppers work just as well.
And the fact that you don’t need the sophistry of cutlery adds yet another layer of enjoyment to the simplicity of this recipe. This is a fun, communal taverna-style dish that your company won’t soon forget.
Taverna-Style Mussels Saganaki
- 4 cayenne peppers finely chopped, seeds and all (red serrano peppers work as well and provide less heat)
- 1 pound half-shell mussels the blanched, frozen variety is just fine. No need to defrost them, and that amount will yield about 8 mussels per person
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled and chopped into 1/8 inch dice
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tomatoes skinned, roughly chopped, all their juice reserved (together, the two tomatoes should weigh about 8 ounces)
- 12 cherry tomatoes halved
- 1 large green bell pepper halved, de-seeded and chopped into 3/4 inch, chunky dice
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 heaped teaspoon brown sugar
- 16 black olives putted, well rinsed, drained, and halved
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 heaped teaspoons fresh oregano leaves stripped from the stalks and finely chopped
- 1/2 ounce fresh parsley very finely chopped, stalks and all. Plus a 1/4 ounce or so to garnish
- 1/2 ounce fresh dill finely chopped, stalks and all. Plus a 1/4 ounce or so to garnish.
- 2 1/2 cups fish stock one good, high-end fish stock cube diluted in boiling water does the trick for me
- 6 ounces feta cheese sticks drained
- Set a good-size saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Stir in the onions and the salt, drop the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the onions soften – but not color – for about 8 minutes with the occasional stir. Adding the salt early on helps this softening, and it also pulls out the onions’ flavor.
- Now add the chilies, garlic, oregano, parsley, bay leaves, tomato paste, black pepper, and sugar. Stir well and let the mix cook on that low heat for another 5 minutes. Add the chopped round tomatoes and all their juice, stir well and let the pan come to a slow simmer. Then stir in the green pepper, cover the pan and let the mix cook for 5 minutes on that low heat. You’re aiming here for bell pepper to become just barely al dente.
- Add the stock and turn the heat to high. As soon as the sauce begins to boil, drop the heat to low so you get a slow, rolling simmer in the pan.
- Now gently stir in the frozen mussels and the cherry tomatoes. Let the pan come back to that rolling simmer and continue to cook for 3 minutes. Stir in the dill and remove from the heat. Check for saltiness and add more to your taste. Done.
- Serve in generous, warmed bowls, and crumble the feta in chunks on top. Garnish with a little dill and parsley – and maybe a few black olives.