Last weekend we took off to the woods for some car camping. We packed the car with all kinds of ‘luxuries’ that we wouldn’t consider when backpacking- dish towels, olive oil, tongs, grilling vegetables, a $7 cast iron le creuset pan (from goodwill).
But the unspoken rule so far has been that all cooking must be done over the camp fire.
We headed out to one of our favorite places – the Oregon coast. Specifically, the stretch between Florence and Yachats.
One thing we love to do when we camp at the coast is musseling. At low tide, they are all over the coastal basalt rocks and with a shellfish license you can harvest up to 60 a day. The tidepools are full of wonderful things to look at.
We used to go with gloves, a screw driver, and a bucket–and had even heard of some people using crowbars (!).
Now we just use rubber gloves and plastic bags. The gloves help protect against cold water and barnacles. A good twist and pull is enough to get the mussel out, especially since we’ve since learned not to go for the tough, old, barnacly ones. A plastic bag each is easier to tote around the rocks as we explore, though a bucket is still useful in the car so the trunk doesn’t *entirely* smell like seacreatures.
Back at the campsite, we got the fire going and started cleaning mussels, which is the biggest pain about musseling. It was particularly difficult since our site didn’t have running water.
How to clean mussels:
When I’m cleaning mussels, my goals are to clean off the shell, get rid of the “beard” (the whiskery looking part that protrude from the shells which the mussel use to attach to rocks), and to get rid of the sand inside the mussel.
My other goal is to keep the mussels alive in cold salt water as long as possible until I’m ready to cook so that the shellfish stays fresh.
1. Cleaning the Shell:
With a strong short paring knife (and wearing gloves), I run the blade along the shell, trying to pare off barnacles and other tough parts which should pop right off. If I had running water, I would also run them under cold water and lightly scrub the shell with steel wool or a scouring pad. I set the mussels aside *dry* – not soaking in fresh water, because freshwater kills them and I’m trying to have them alive as long possible before cooking them.
I’ve stopped expecting to get a smooth stone-like black mussel that I find in restaurants and supermarkets, because the wild mussels we find have natural lumps and imperfections. I used to intensely scrub the surface with steel wool, but it actually seemed to cause more of its shell to flake off during cooking.
2. Getting rid of the “beard”:
Pulling off the beard (or byssus threads) may also kill the mussel, so I do this after I’ve cleaned all the shells. Sometimes a yank towards the hinge of the mussel is enough to tear the threads, but otherwise, I use the edge of a knife to separate the threads from the shell. Some people use scissors. Right after this step, I plop the mussel into a bowl of cold fresh water.
3. Getting rid of sand in the mussel:
This is the easiest step–wait. Let them sit in cold water for at least 30 minutes. I have forgotten this crucial step a few times and ended up with gritty mussels. As the mussels sit in fresh water, they will “breathe” in the fresh water and expel the sand inside. You’ll find after a few minutes that a layer of sand has settled at the bottom of the bowl.
Sometimes I change the water halfway, but that’s not necessary. When you’re ready to cook them, the most important thing is to lift the mussels out of the bowl rather than dump them out because you want the sand to stay settled and undisturbed at the bottom of your bowl.
So while the mussels are “breathing”, I prepare the rest of my ingredients. The proportions below are for 20-25 mussels:
- butter or olive oil
- 4-5 cloves of garlic
- 1/4 – 1/2 an onion
- 1 small tomato
- chopped cilantro or parsley
- white wine or beer (1/2-3/4 cup)
- cream (if available)
1. When the campfire is good and hot, put a not-very-important and fire-safe pot on the grill. Fry the garlic and onion in the olive oil. When these become transluscent, add the tomatoes and cook until they start to soften.
2. Dump in your mussels (make sure everything else is sizzling and hot). Pour the beer or wine on top of the mussels. You do not need to cover them as the mussels will cook by steaming. Throw in a handful of cilantro or parsley, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cover your pot with the lid.
3. Let sizzle and spark and get consumed by campfire flames.
(We were also doing rosemary-sage pork chops and grilled corn, with seasoning and butter rubbed under the husk. For the pork chops, I marinated them at home and froze them in a ziploc. They ‘defrosted’ throughout the day and were still very cold even after a day of driving around when we put them on the campfire)
4. Check the mussels occasionally and stir if needed. The mussels will open when they’re ready (~7-10 min). They’ll also release their savory mussel juice to mix with your beer, your wine, the garlic, the tomato… it’s spectacular. If one or two mussels haven’t opened, just toss those away. If you’re using cream, drizzle it in at this point.
Have a baguette ready to dip into the broth, which (I think) is one of the best parts of making mussels, along with eating them in the dark in the middle of the woods.