Comfort Me with Mussels


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.


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.

The answer to this problem is to make fish stock fresh when you need it. Fortunately it doesn't take hours like a meat stock, and is easy when you use shellfish, such as clams and mussels. Put a little water in a stockpot, add some finely chopped veggies and seasonings, then dump in the live shellfish.

If you are using different shellfish, they will need to go in at different times. The mussels Josh collected were far larger than the Manila clams, so they went in three minutes before the clams, which needed only two minutes to open in the boiling water. Once the shellfish open, they release a salty brine that makes this quick broth magic.

Strain it through a fine-mesh sieve and you are good to go. Keep it warm in another pot. Don't let it boil again.

If you've never made a proper risotto, it is hard to describe how to make it perfectly. Risotto is temperamental and needy, and you must cater to its desires or it will spoil on you.

Start with a tablespoon or two of butter and sauté finely chopped shallots until they think about browning—you do not want them brown, but almost brown. See what I mean about the difficulty with words here? Add a cup of rice to feed two to four people (depending on whether this is dinner or just a side dish) and sauté it, too, stirring often, until you see brown marks on the bottom of the pot.

Add a cup of white wine that is at least at room temperature. Do not add cold wine or it will shock the rice. Shocked rice becomes sullen, and it is difficult to coax out its goodness. Let this simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the wine is almost all absorbed—not totally absorbed, and for God's sake you do not want it to stick to the bottom of the pot.

Now add about a cup of the broth, and stir it in well. You should not need salt; you'll get enough from the clam broth. Stirring a risotto is a Zen-like thing: constant, endless circling, sometimes cutting through the rice, sometimes whipping little whirlpools though its center, or eddies on the sides—but always with a wooden spoon.

You will hear when the rice wants more water. The pitch of the simmer will rise, and you will hear the faintest hint of a sizzle, and sizzling is bad in risotto. Add another cup and repeat.

Do this for a total of five cups: one of wine, four of broth. In the final cup, add another tablespoon of butter and all the shellfish, which you have removed from their shells.

Serve immediately. Risotto's beauty is in the creamy sauce that has no cream, the silken feeling it leaves on your tongue and the toothsome surprise of the rice, which retains its integrity despite being stirred into submission for more than 20 minutes.

Eating a good risotto is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket. Eating this risotto is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket at the beach, with a fire in front of you, your friends around you, and the stars above.