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Ignore the mussels in these pictures for a minute. They were good, but what I really want to talk about here is the saffron tomato sauce that they’re smothered in. Oh my goodness. With a luxurious, velvety texture that clings lightly to each strand of pasta, and a complex flavor that’s a tiny bit sweet, a little exotic, and has a faintly spicy note that’s familiar but at the same time hard to place (hint: it’s vanilla!), this sauce is the stuff dreams are made of.
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The sauce goes great with mussels, and I’m sure it would be delicious with shrimp or chicken too, but you could just give me a ladle full on top of a big bowl of plain pasta and I’d be a happy camper. Honestly, I’d probably be happy even without the pasta – this sauce is so good that I’ll happily eat it by the spoon full.

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I like to use San Marzano tomatoes, which are naturally lower in acidity and have a sweeter flavor than other canned tomatoes, in this sauce. Some brands can be expensive, but there are a few brands that aren’t bad at all. I like Bella Terra Organic San Marzano Tomatoes, which are about $3 per can. Since the rest of the ingredients in this sauce are cheap (I stock up on cheap saffron at Trader Joe’s whenever I’m visiting a place where there is one), I still make out better than buying a jar of “good” sauce. If you can’t find San Marzanos or want a cheaper option any can of whole peeled plum tomatoes will do.

Milk and butter add a layer of richness and help give the sauce its amazing texture. Full fat or skim milk will work, but you can also use almond milk or even coconut milk if that’s what you have around. I actually used Silk Simply Coconut in the sauce shown here and was very happy with the way it turned out (I had a coupon for a free half gallon of the milk, which is delicious!)

mussels in saffron tomato sauce

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Mussels with Saffron Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 10 minutes, Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

  • 1 large (28 oz) can Whole, Peeled Tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 1/2 bulb Fennel, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1 small Onion, chopped (1/4 cup)
  • 1 clove Garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp Saffron, lightly crushed
  • 1/2 tsp Vanilla
  • 1/4 cup Milk
  • 1/2 cup Water, reserved from cooking pasta
  • 1 tsp Butter
  • 2 pounds Mussels scrubbed
  • 8 ounces dry Pasta

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.

While waiting for the water to boil: Add the tomatoes, along with the puree or juice they’re packaged with, into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process several seconds, until smooth.

Heat the oil in a medium (3 Quart) saucepan. Add the garlic, fennel, and onions and cook 5 minutes or until softened. Add the pureed tomatoes, saffron, and vanilla. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer at least 15 minutes.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. Steam the mussels in a separate pot. When the pasta has finished, stir 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and 1/4 cup of milk into your sauce. Drain the pasta.

Add the butter and stir until it melts into the sauce. Serve sauce over pasta and mussels.

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I’m submitting this post to Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by Simona of Briciole and to Wanderfood Wednesday.

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