When I first came to live in northern California in 1962 as a freshman at UC Berkeley, I never expected to find myself foraging for mussels in the rocky tide pools along the northern California coast. Then one day, a new found friend suggested we go mussel “hunting.” There would be a minus 2 tide at 8:30 a.m., revealing the mussel-populated rocks above water. We set off at 6:30 a.m. for the 2 hour journey there, a convenient time for foragers who often have to suffer hardship and sleep deprivation to get where they’re going. The exposed beds of mussels seemed to stretch almost to the horizon, with huge, lumbering sea lions lounging around, sun bathing, so to speak. It was an unforgettably beautiful, morning-sun lit nature panorama. We walked over the sharp landscape with sturdy shoes and plucked up mussels, plopping them into buckets half-filled with sea water to keep them alive until we were ready to cook them. The ocean was gently slapping against the rocks far enough away so that we knew we could forage safely. We kept an ear out for its change in tempo and tone to clue us when the tide turned back and began flowing in, soon to turn the rocky landscape briny again. As the waves started breaking against the rocks more quickly and sounded louder, it was time to skedaddle.
Back home, we scrubbed off the barnacles and seaweed debris from the mussel shells, tugged off their beards, steamed them open, and served them forth with no further ado except for a well-chilled California Sauvignon Blanc and warm, crusty French bread.
Today, I rely on my seafood vendor to provide the mussels, no traveling or scrubbing required. But the romance of that outdoor adventure remains, and in season I serve them often, steamed in a dazzling onion and saffron broth Rick created. The recipe is adapted from my forthcoming book, Bold Food, co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman, 2012).
Serves 3 to 4
3 pounds mussels
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow or white onion thinly sliced
1/4 cup diced fresh or canned tomatoes
1 1/2 cups white wine
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1. Rinse and debeard the mussels, if necessary. Plunge them into a large bowl of cold water, lift out the mussels that have closed, and set them aside in a colander. Discard those that are still open.
2. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and tomatoes and cook until the liquid is reduced to about 1 cup, about 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the saffron, add the mussels, cover the pot, and cook until the mussels open, 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Serve right away, with the baguette on the side.