Local food and travel writer Naomi Tomky’s work has been published in dozens of national magazines, but The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook (November 5, The Countryman Press, $27.95) is her first foray into cookbook writing. In her signature relatable style, Tomky outlines everything there is to know about local fish and shellfish, from the seafood’s cultural significance to cleaning techniques to, finally, cooking it. The book has 75 recipes, some contributed by local chefs, others written by Tomky, ranging from salmon chowder to salt-and-pepper squid.
In this excerpt, Tomky talks about one of our favorite year-round seafood options—the mighty mussel.
SEA FARE: Lore, techniques and recipes feature in local food and travel writer Naomi Tomky’s new book.
Farmed mussels are a fairly recent arrival on the Pacific Northwest food scene. Penn Cove Shellfish on Whidbey Island is the oldest commercial mussel farm in North America—and it’s only been open since 1975, nearly 100 years after the first commercial oyster farms. They produce both of the species of edible mussels farmed in the Pacific Northwest: Baltic, which they brand as Penn Cove, and Mediterranean, which are found and farmed widely in the region. Both are available pretty much year-round and are equally easy to work with, affordable, sustainable, and delicious, which makes them an incredibly good option if you’re new to cooking shellfish.
How Mediterranean mussels arrived in the Northwest is something like a slapstick comedy: accidentally transported from Europe to California on a boat, then mislabeled and shipped to the Northwest, where it turned out they were not Pacific blue mussels, but the Mediterranean species considered a delicacy across the Atlantic. In the chilly waters of Totten Inlet and around Puget Sound, they thrived, growing up plump and sweet.
For the foragers out there, collecting wild mussels (a third species) is as easy as picking the right beach and plucking them from the rocks. Make sure you have a license to harvest and that you check for red tide warnings in the area where you are gathering mussels. But all three types share general cooking and care recommendations—and a similar short shelf life.
Live mussels are a bit more fragile than clams or oysters, with thin, brittle shells and a propensity for going bad quite quickly. Plan to eat your mussels as soon as possible—more like live crab than like clams or oysters. If you do need to keep them at all, lay them on a sheet pan in the refrigerator with a damp cloth on top. Don’t save them more than a day or two.
Mussels, unlike their fellow mollusks, require an extra step of preparation: debearding. It is an annoying, somewhat finicky task, but it is fairly simple and extremely necessary. Start by scrubbing the outside of your mussels, checking each one to make sure that it’s either tightly closed or closes tight when touched. Most of the PNW mussels are farmed, meaning they grew hanging from a rope, and thus aren’t too dirty.
Then check out the instructions below to learn to debeard and you’re ready to cook. Mussels prefer gentle cooking styles, such as steaming or smoking, but they happily take on all sorts of flavors, so it’s easy to experiment with anything from Thai-style red curry mussels to the Northwest apple cider idea from chef John Sundstrom (see recipe below).
How to Debeard a Mussel
Debearding a mussel—removing the steel wool-like tangle of what’s called “byssus threads”—is one of those tasks where it seems like everyone just copied and pasted from what the last guy said about it. Take hold of the threads or beard in one hand, the mussel in the other, and pull. Great! You’re done!
I think these people are all delusional. In my experience, this works well for about one in every five mussels. Which is not a great ratio. Or it results in my getting part of the beard, but not all, leaving a tiny thread that I can now not get off for the life of me, even with tools.
Sometimes, if you read deeper, you’ll see recommendations of pliers. This is more my speed—the threads are stronger than most things you’d use pliers on. But there’s a better tool that, if you’ve been listening, you likely already have in your fish-cooking arsenal: tweezers.
Hold the mussel in your non-dominant hand, with the hinge toward you and the beard toward the tweezers in your other hand. Firmly grasp the threads with the tweezers as close to the mussel as you can get, then, holding the tweezers perpendicular to the mussel, twist or roll them, still clasping the thread, toward you. It will gently pull the threads out every time.
If you’ve got any barnacles on them and want to remove those, too, just use the dull backside of a butter knife to nudge them off, then rinse—though that’s cosmetic only, as they won’t hurt you or change the taste of the dish.
Mussels with Apple and Bacon
John Sundstrom, Lark, Seattle
At Lark, Sundstrom’s much acclaimed Seattle restaurant, he translates moments in the Seattle year into dishes on the table. This quick dish speaks to fall in the Pacific Northwest, with crispy bacon bits, three different sources of apple flavor, and a touch of thyme. Serve it right from a pot in the center of the table while you watch the rain pour down in November—that’s as Northwest as it gets.
4 ounces smoked bacon, cut into ¼-inch lardons
1 small shallot, sliced into thin rings
½ Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 pound mussels, debearded and scrubbed
2 tablespoons dry white wine
2 tablespoons apple cider
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
¼ cup heavy cream
1 thyme sprig, leaves only
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
4 thick slices country bread, toasted
1. Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until it is rendered and crisp, about 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat. If there’s no fat left, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the shallot and diced apple and cook until slightly caramelized, about 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Turn the heat to medium-high. Add the mussels and gently stir to coat them with the bacon, shallot and apple.
4. Deglaze the pan by adding the white wine, apple cider, and apple cider vinegar and stirring up the bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let the liquid reduce slightly.
5. Add the cream, thyme, salt and as much freshly ground pepper as you’d like. Cover and cook for 2 minutes, or longer if needed, until all of the mussels are open and the sauce is reduced and slightly thickened.
6. Remove from the heat and serve immediately with toasted country bread.