We’re back from our Hunter/Gatherer adventure, where we picked our limit of luscious wave bathed mussels, while breathing in the soul cleansing air of Whiskey Run beach – and now we are rewarded for all our hard work.
What hard work?
Have you noticed how hard some people ‘play’; it’s often quite humorous – and it’s absolutely correct when they talk about how lots of boys never really grow up, their toys just get bigger! Not only do these boys work much harder at play than they ever do at their real work, but they spend huge amounts of money doing so. I admit being sometimes lured into doing the same – as when I try to explain why I’m willing to spend more on my garden than it would cost me to just buy what I grow at the Farmers Market. But I draw my line pretty low in this game, and attempt to justify it with a gamut of typical gardener justification.
Last year, Sandee and I decided to get into recreational crabbing, which is one of the big local ‘sporting’ activities around here which on the surface suggests that one would be repaid well for their investment in necessary equipment – after all, the Dungeness crabs we’d be catching cost upwards of $6 – $8 a lb, and the traps one needs are about $25 each (we got 3). Then there’s bait (chicken legs) and good sturdy line for each trap.
Have we recouped our investment yet? Not even close. Now, admittedly, we’ll use these traps for several years more before they need replacing – but, you get my point.
Some fun activities are just too damned expensive!
Not so with mussel gathering – it takes little effort to twist your chosen mussel away from his secure home on the rock – and even by the time you’ve reached your limit, you haven’t begun to get tired. In fact, you’ll likely spend the next hour or two investigating the diverse sea life in the many tide pools around you – and you may even decide to pick a little seaweed to make some new usual soup or salad.
Did you know that all seaweed is eatable? Yup – there’s no such thing as toxic seaweed. Now whether it’s tasty, or deteriorated, those are other questions entirely – and deserve consideration. We’ll do a future post or two on seaweed, and we’ll talk about all that.
What kind of expensive equipment do we need for mussel gathering? Absolutely nothing that we don’t already have handy – a pair of gloves, a pair of beat-up sneaks, and a bucket or old onion bag – probably the most challenging part of this whole thing is knowing where to go, and then getting there.
Is it any wonder then, that when scholars talk about what our ancient Native American ancestors ate on a daily basis, the evidence suggests that their diet was based primarily on those foods which were most easily secured – shellfish! And why not? All they need do was to take a walk down the beach at low tide and pick what they needed – and go cook it.
Which is exactly what we’ll do right now.
Now that we have our limit of wild mussels, we need to recognize how these differ from cultivated mussels, which for all of us are far more familiar – immediately we are faced with these differences, and we realize that the process of cultivation is always intended to change some perceived negative characteristics to something more acceptable. In the case of the wild mussel, those would be raising the mussels in an environment that was clean of the sea creatures that might otherwise cluster on the shell of the mussel, making it the unsightly mess that the wild mussel is – and assuring that this environment was one where wave action did not create swirling sand, which would find its way into the filter system of the mussel, and contaminate the meat during final preparation. Additionally, the byssal threads of the cultivated mussel is usually less pronounced than that of its wild kin.
But these considerations are easily solved in a cultivated mussel, and we’ll discuss how to deal with all in the process of preparing our wild mussels – I hope to the satisfaction of those who choose to gather wild mussels as well.
The only other difference that I’m aware of between the wild California mussel and its cultivated kin is taste – and that difference may be entirely due to the fact that the parents of the cultivated mussel are not from the family of the California mussel, but from the Mediterranean Blue mussel, whose taste may already be more like the common cultivated mussel of the US west coast. Whatever, do not expect the taste of the wild mussel to be exactly like that of a cultivated mussel – the California mussel has a more pronounced flavor (which some prefer) and is not quite as sweet as its cultivated kin.
Interestingly, the longer I eat the wild California mussel, the less taste difference with the cultivated mussel I can discern – but that fact may be entirely due to the declining taste buds of an old man!
OK, we’ve got these babies home – how should we clean them? I don’t go to any heroic efforts with these – and by that I mean I don’t try to get those barnacles off the shell of the mussel. There are two reasons for this: I think if it were absolutely necessary to clean each mussel of all external add-ons prior to cooking, we’d never bother with mussels ever again – that’s just too damn hard to even contemplate!
But the second reason is even more compelling – those stuck on barnacles are simply delicious! And if left on, they will add to the flavor of the broth that’s created during the steaming of the mussels themselves. If you doubt me, I invite you to try one – once your mussels are steamed, the barnacles will simply fall off the mussel shell and drop to the bottom of your pot – find one of the bigger ones and pick the meat out of the bottom of the barnacle shell. Sweet, soft and luscious! Maybe even better than the mussels themselves – so please, don’t worry about trying to clean them off.
OK, what do I do? I take two buckets, one of which has my mussels – and I use a water hose to fill that first bucket – now I roll up my sleeves and agitate the mussels to loosen any sand which may be on them (and there will be a lot!) – and then I fill the second bucket half way up with fresh water – now I reach into the bucket of mussels and move hand-fulls of mussels from that bucket to the one with the clean water. And again I agitate the mussels up and down to loosen any sand. Now I wash out the first bucket and fill it half way with clean water. I do this transfer/wash activity at least 3 or 4 times until I’m no longer getting loose sand in the bottom of the buckets – now I’m ready for cooking.
You may have noticed that I don’t use -or advocate using- any soaking of my mussels. Some suggest a soaking period in salt water, with maybe some added cornmeal, which is supposed to rid the mussels of any residual sand they may have inside their shells. I don’t do this for several reasons – one, I don’t want my mussels to get rid of the juices they now have inside them – those juices are far tastier than anything they might replace them with – I have alternate ways of getting rid of any sand; we’ll discuss those later.
And the other reason is that I don’t think that process does anything anyway – if we don’t have seawater handy, we’ll never get our soaking water to be satisfactory to the mussels, and they’ll just sit there and never open anyway. Additionally, we don’t want to allow these mussels any excuse to go bad on us, so the sooner we can cook them, the better.
For now, go get a good size pot in which you’ll steam the mussels – you’ll want a pot that’s big enough for all your mussels, with room to spare. Put your mussels into that pot and take them into your kitchen, or wherever you’re going to cook them.
And if you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to take a break here – ’cause this post is just getting too long, and we haven’t even turned the stove on yet – so, it’s a good time for a break. I’ll see you back here in a day or so. Keep those mussels cold in the meantime.