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Updated Friday, February 22, 2013 at 02:01 PM

Put on a pot of mussels and relish our local riches

By Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer

IF YOU LOVE mussels like I love mussels, then you know how lucky we are to live in the Pacific Northwest.

Here, the smooth-shelled ebony lovelies farmed in rafts off our gravely shores don't look anything like the big, ugly mollusks I used to find when I was a child pulling them off the jetties at the Jersey Shore to inspect their ropy beards.

Those wild mussels were a menu staple at the kind of East Coast Italian restaurants famous for spaghetti and meatballs; when they came drowned in spaghetti sauce it was easy to ignore the call of the wild — their gamy flavor and P.U. perfume.

These days, I can't ignore the call of a pound — or two! — of sweet, clean Pacific Northwest mussels, celebrated next weekend at the Penn Cove Musselfest in Coupeville (www.thepenncovemusselfestival.com).

I celebrate my good fortune year-round by purchasing fresh mussels from growers like Coupeville's own Penn Cove Shellfish, the oldest commercial mussel farm in the United States. The Jefferds family floats its mussels in that namesake cove and from their farm along Hood Canal's Quilcene Bay. Some 2,000 pounds will be pulled to feed the crowds at Musselfest.

I use mussels for everything from pastas to chowder, Thai curry to French bouillabaisse, and never hesitate to order up a bowlful at restaurants throughout Puget Sound. But go figure: On a recent trip to the Jersey Shore a friend treated me to dinner at Gecko's — a Southwest-styled restaurant in Cape May, persuading me to try what he insisted were some of the best mussels he'd ever eaten.

They were not, as I feared, from the beach down the block, but instead farmed off Canada's Prince Edward Island. Like our own Pacific Northwest mussels, these were sweet and meaty, free of sand and grit, and could stand on their own steamed with little more than garlic and white wine. Instead they were given the Vera Cruz treatment, according to Gecko's chef and owner, Randy Bithell, who shared his recipe, which I've adapted at home to great effect.

Take the time to plate the mussels facing up so you can capture the tomatoes, capers and olives along with the briny juices, and do as I do and pull off a shell to use as a "spoon" to scoop any leftovers.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.

South of the Border-style Mussels

Serves 4 as appetizer or 2 for a light meal

.

2 pounds fresh Northwest mussels, rinsed and picked over for stray beards

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup red onion, diced

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 tablespoon dried ground ancho chili pepper (available at Mexican groceries and specialty spice shops)

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup diced fresh tomatoes

1/2 cup jalapeño-stuffed olives, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)

1. Preheat a large sauté the pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. When it's hot but not smoking, add the red onion and sauté for 30 seconds. Stir in the garlic and sauté 10 seconds. Stir in the ancho chili pepper and sauté 10 seconds.

2. Gently add the mussels, then the wine. Strew the tomatoes, olives, capers and cilantro over the top of the mussels. Cover, turn the heat to high and steam until the mussels open. This should take about 4 to 5 minutes. Serve in warmed bowls, with the shells facing upward to catch the juicy excess.


ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Amped up with ancho chilies and jalapeño-stuffed olives, our marvelous Pacific Northwest mussels take a hint from our friends in the Southwest.




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