Comfort Me with Mussels

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Hank Shaw


To try Hank's recipe for risotto with clams, mussels, and shrimp—or any other combination of shellfish—click here.

Sometimes foraging, fishing, and clamming at the seaside results only in a few of anything—clams, crabs, fish, etc. What to do? Make a mixed seafood meal.

This is what happened on a recent weekend during our trip to Bodega Bay. It was tough sledding all day long, and we kept almost getting skunked: Josh could have caught a couple crabs. We could have kept a couple mud shrimp, a couple bent-nosed clams, a couple cockles. As it was, we decided to keep only eight large mussels he'd found on rocks in a tide pool. Eight mussels for a day's work.

My thought as we drove home was to combine these mussels with other seafood into a frutti di mare risotto. Other options could have been a cioppino or seafood stew, a pasta sauce or a seafood salad.

What hit me then was the realization that this is probably how many of these dishes were invented: dregs from a fisherman's net, unsold items from the morning fish market, a bad day of foraging. From a forager's point of view, it requires a certain mindset to work up the courage to keep, say, three cockles or two smallish crabs and move on. We are so programmed toward plenty that scarcity triggers an "Aw, screw it!" response causing us—or at least me—to release whatever few specimens of deliciousness back to the wild and head to the store.

And mind you, this is not just an ocean thing. Hunters out there, you ever come home with one squirrel, one duck, or a lone quail? For mushroomers it may be just a handful of mediocre edibles.

At any rate, this is what I did. By the time the mixed seafood dish had gelled in my head, the day was almost done and Josh was picking mussels. So the next morning I went to the Sacramento farmer's market and bought some tiny bay shrimp and two pounds of little Manila clams.

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Hank Shaw

I've made a lot of seafood risottos over the years. A few were good. Most, however, I remember as overly fishy and generally, well, thin. They tend to lack that umami thwack! you get from a red meat or cheese risotto.

And then there's the rice. I know enough to make risotto with short-grain rice: long-grain rice lacks amylopectin, a particular starch you need to get that creamy consistency. For most of my life, I'd just bought whatever short-grain was cheapest and called it a day. Recently I'd begun buying real Carnaroli rice, which you can get online from Scott over at Sausage Debauchery.

But then I read in Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Grains and Greens that while carnaroli is cheaper and works perfectly well in a seafood risotto, the top-of-the-line rice is a variety called Vialone Nano, which is smaller and rounder than most other risotto rices. It absorbs more water than most and makes the perfect Venetian-style risotto, which is loose, almost soupy.

Armed with top-of-the-line rice, I needed top-of-the-line broth. I know a lot of writers say you can freeze a fish or seafood broth, but unless you have a freezer that will hold below -10 F or colder, forget it. Why? Because even the small amounts of fat that you get from a fish broth will go rancid.

Think about it: a cow lives in our world, and its body temperature is about 101 F. Dead and cut up into meat, the animal and its fat, held in a home freezer (typically 0 degrees Fahrenheit), is 101 degrees colder than it was while the beast was alive. Now think about a rock cod or black sea bass, two fish often used for fish stock. They tend to live in water that's about 40 F. So even in a freezer, the difference between the live critter and the frozen meat—or broth—is just 40 degrees. This makes a huge difference.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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