Nonna Cecilia Debellis’ rice, potatoes, and mussels

This classic dish is typically baked in a terra-cotta (clay) pot and served as a hearty first course. Layers of al dente rice and fresh mussels play beautifully with the tangy salsa of tomatoes and onions. The recipe varies throughout the region of Puglia, and some variations include other summer vegetables, such as zucchini. Nonna Cecilia keeps hers classic, and serves it up during the warmer months.

Nonna Cecilia says: “The mussels in this dish are served on the half shell, and opening them can be a bit tricky. If you can’t get the hang of it, help them along by steaming them first, but make sure you save all the water that comes out of them.”

Ingredients:

1½ pounds (680 g) Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into ¹⁄8-inch (3 mm) slices
2 pounds (907 g) mussels, rinsed, scrubbed, and beards removed
½ cup (120 ml) dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
5 tablespoons (75 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, cut into ¼-inch (6 mm) half rings
1 pound (454 g) Roma plum tomatoes, cut into ½-inch (13 mm) dice
¼ cup (16 g) roughly chopped fresh parsley
3 cups (555 g) Arborio rice
¼ cup (30 g) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
4 cups (950 ml) boiling water
Salt and pepper, to taste

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Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 ℉ (175 ℃). Place the potato slices in a bowl of cold water to prevent darkening.

Open all the mussels and leave the fruit on the half shell, discarding the other shell halves. Reserve the juice of the mussels in a glass. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the wine, olive oil, garlic, onion, tomatoes, and parsley, and mix well. Season with salt and black pepper.

Cover the bottom of a deep 14 × 9½-inch (35 × 24 cm) baking pan with a layer of the onions and tomatoes. Next, add a layer of potatoes. Place a layer of mussels over the potatoes. Spoon about ½ tablespoon (5 g) of rice over each mussel, and then spread half the rice over the entire surface (about 1½ cups, or 278 g).

Repeat another layer each of onions and tomatoes, potatoes, mussels, and rice. Cover the top with the remaining potatoes and vegetables.

Add the liquid from the mixing bowl and the reserved juice of the mussels, being careful not to add any grit that settles at the bottom of the glass. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and add the boiling water, just enough to cover the potatoes.

Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Uncover and bake for an additional 10 minutes, until lightly golden. If desired, you can place it under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the top is nicely colored.

Let rest for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Cooking With Nonna © 2017 text by Rossella Rago. First published in the United States of America in 2017 by Race Point Publishing, a member of Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc. 142 West 36th Street, 4th Floor New York, New York 10018.