Mussel Risotto with Pan-Seared Scallops

Some dishes are rather simple to describe, even if their ingredients and techniques are esoteric.  Others call for a somewhat more philosophical approach, even if their ingredients and techniques are simple.  There’s a fashion now to describe risotto as an easy dish: simply dump the rice in a pan and cook it for the prescribed time.  I think that’s a travesty, because you can never cook rice to perfection like that but, perhaps I’m biased, because I absolutely love the whole experience of making a fine risotto.  It’s soothing, sensuous and utterly fulfilling.

Let’s start by talking about the rice.  This recipe calls for Arborio but there are two others that you can use: Carnaroli or Vialone Nano (not so common).  These rices have a higher starch content than other rices and it’s the starch content that makes the rice creamy.  Risotto is absolutely not risotto if it’s not creamy.  Arborio is the easiest to find and, in my opinion, is the best.  I’d go as far as to say that if you cannot find one of these rices, don’t bother to make risotto.

Next, let’s talk about the mussels because they’re the basis of the broth (and, of course, the mussel meat is in the risotto).  One reason I like to cook with mussels is that they are perhaps the most sustainable of all seafoods.  They’re farmed and the farming does not harm the oceans or any other wild fish.  For the best results you must keep them alive until the very last moment.  That way, they give up their lives for the best possible cause!  Preferably, buy them the day you’re going to use them but, if you can’t do that, here’s how to keep them happy until their final sacrifice:  if they’re in a plastic bag, make sure the bag isn’t sealed.  Most good fishmongers now pack them in a net.  Do not keep the mussels on ice and don’t set them or soak them in water.  Put a damp dishrag over them and keep them in the coldest part of your fridge until you’re ready to use them.

Some of them may die before their time and you must discard them.  On Poseidon, we cannot throw them in the ocean because that risks contamination.  Now, working with their live brothers and sisters, select any mussels that are open and tap them.  If they close, they’re still alive and you can give them that second chance.  If they stay open, they’ve crossed the divide and must be respectfully disposed of.

Working with the live mussels, strip their beards – the stringy, seaweed-like material with which the mussels cling to their habitat (farmed or natural).

There are five steps to this risotto:  the broth; the risotto; the scallops; the chive oil; the assembly.

Make the Chive Oil first.  You’ll need:
Chive Oil:
1 bunch of chives
½ cup olive oil

Put the chives and the olive oil into a blender, strain through a fine sieve and season with salt.  Set aside until The Assembly.

Keep a few uncut chives for the final garnish.

Now prepare The Broth.  You’ll need:
The Broth:
2 tablespoons olive oil – Extra Virgin
2 pounds mussels
1 leek
1 carrot
1 onion
1 celery stalk
1 cup white wine
2 quarts water
Fresh thyme sprigs
Bay leaves

Preparing the broth
Before you dice the leeks, make sure there is no residual dirt in the leaves.  The best way to do this is to slice them lengthwise and rinse them.  Clean and de-beard the mussels, if you have not done so already.  Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the mussels.  Cook until the mussels open.  Add the diced vegetables, fresh thyme and bay leaves, and sauté for about 3 minutes.  Add the wine and water and simmer for 20 minutes.

Strain the broth, reserving the mussels for the risotto, and season with salt and pepper.  If there are any mussels that have not opened, discard them now.  Keep the broth warm.

Now for The Risotto.  You’ll need:
The Risotto:
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup onion, diced
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
Mussel broth
1 tablespoon butter
Salt & pepper
Mussels, removed from shells

Preparing the risotto
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Sauté the onion until soft, but not brown.  Add the Arborio and continue to sauté until the rice is toasted.  Stir in the wine and simmer until the wine is almost evaporated, then add the saffron and stir until it is incorporated into the rice.

Now slowly start adding the warm mussel broth, 1 cupful at a time, and reducing until almost evaporated with each addition.  It’s absolutely vital that the broth is as warm as the rice, otherwise it will slow down the cooking process. When the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, stir in the butter, add the mussels and season with salt and pepper.

Never let the rice dry out.  A good risotto must always be “al’onda” – that is, like a wave; a little bit wet.  No risotto worth the name is dry.

Keep the risotto warm while you’re cooking the scallops but, ideally, you need to be searing the scallops while the risotto is cooking because there’s nothing more disappointing than a risotto that has called out “sono pronto” but no one’s listening.

For the Scallops, you’ll need:
1 pound large dry diver scallops
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

As part of the prep for this dish, you must first separate the abductor from the meat.  The abductor is the small muscle which attaches the scallop to the shell.  It’s slightly different in color and texture from the meat of the scallop, and its grain runs in a different direction.

Season the scallops with salt and pepper, on both sides.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet.  When the olive oil ripples, but before it smokes, sauté the scallops quickly.  Two minutes per side because we want them very rare, warm and translucent on the  inside, with a slight brown carmelization on the outside.

Now you’re ready for the final assembly of this dish, which raises the mundane staple, rice, to truly stupendous heights.

The Asembly
Place half a cup or a few large spoonfuls of the risotto on the plate, making sure that each serving includes a generous helping of mussels.  Lean two or three of the scallops up against the rice.  Drizzle the assembly with the chive oil.

Finally, for artistic effect, top the assembly with a couple of the uncut chives.

John’s Wine Selection:
I like a Trimbach Riesling for this risotto. It has a residual sweetness as do the scallops and so they complement each other. This wine will not overpower the dish, whose only spice is saffron and the saffron does very with the riesling’s residual sugar. Other choices might include a Pinot Grigio, a much drier, lighter wine which would go along with the risotto, but that’s the problem: it would just ‘go along’ where the Riesling really does add something to the dish.