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Turning a mussel hunt into a quick, indulgent feast

 

One of the many perks to being within an hour of the Oregon coast is having access to incredible seafood, especially salmon, tuna, oysters, and Dungeness crab. Knowing where to go always helps, but even tourists and newcomers can enjoy these delicacies for the right price.

Of course, this was all lost on me growing up here. After living inland for the last decade and change, I have a newfound appreciation for how lucky we are to be near the rocky, majestic coast… Especially now that we know where to get shellfish for free.

Okay, not exactly free. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife charges $7 for a one-year shellfish license and limits you to 72 mussels a day. Even if you gather your limit for one day, it’s still a pretty good deal. Trust us though, you will want to go back!

The only real trick is to find a nice, convenient rock to harvest and wait for low tide. This might take some time, but hey, how often do you have an excuse to go exploring beaches? Make a day trip out of it and enjoy the scenery.

Once you have located a rock with plenty of mussels, look for small- to medium-sized specimens (about 2 ½ to 3 inches long) with intact shells that clam-up when squeezed. Pry them off with a sturdy knife or chisel, being careful not to cut yourself or get sliced up by barnacles. When transporting the mussels back to the kitchen, make sure they can breathe in the container you collected them in.

When large numbers of mussels can be had so cheaply, we immediately thought of one preparation: Moules Frites. An ancient Belgian dish that has become popular in France as well, Moules Frites combines mussels steamed in an herb-wine broth with a generous helping of crispy French fries. We decided to guild the lily a bit by whipping up some roasted-garlic-herb aioli and thinning it out with a bit of the mussel broth. Perfect for dipping fries in or spooning over a delicious, briny mussel!

If you don’t have the time or inclination to fry up some potatoes, good crusty bread is great for sopping up the mussel broth…

BUT, before you decide deep-frying is too much of a pain, try this cold-start method of doing up fries… it uses less oil and is much more convenient than our usual, go-to French fry recipe. You don’t need a thermometer, there’s hardly any spattering, you don’t have to constantly watch the fries every minute, and you can use flavor-packed, low-smoke-point oils that typically don’t work for deep-frying. We took advantage of this and used extra-virgin olive oil… awesome!

After a hard day’s work of mussel-hunting, what better way to enjoy them than with a bottle of luxurious Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay? The recent 2012 bottling’s subtle citrus notes and fruity finish offer a lovely foil to the creamy aioli, crispy olive-infused fries, and briny mussels.

Moules Frites with Herbed Aïoli
4 servings

Timing is important here: the mussels and fries should be ready at around the same time.

First, prepare and clean:
     4-6 pounds mussels
To remove sand, soak in cool water until the mussels release their grit. Scrub them with a stiff brush or steel wool under running water. If the mussels have a tuft of wiry, hair-like stuff coming out of the shell (called a “beard”), do not remove until ready to steam (they will die immediately). When ready to steam, remove the beards by firmly gripping with your fingers and working back and forth until they come free.

Next, get the fries going. Combine in a pot or Dutch oven over medium-high to high heat:
     3 pounds Yukon Gold, Kennebec, or Katahdin potatoes, cut in ¼ x ¼-inch batons or strips
     Vegetable or olive oil to cover

Bring to a boil--the fries will start to sizzle. Basically, what's happening here is that you're cooking the moisture out of the fries. Once the moisture has cooked out of the fries, the oil temperature will start to rise, so reduce the heat after about 15 minutes or so to maintain a slow and steady boil. Cook for about 15 minutes more, stirring occasionally to prevent the fries from sticking to the bottom, until they are browned to your liking. Remove to a baking sheet lined with paper towels and season with:
     Salt
     (smoked paprika)

As the fries cook, whip up the aïoli. Place in a bowl or blender:
     4 garlic cloves, minced, or the cloves from one whole head of roasted garlic
Whisk together with:
     2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
     juice of one lemon
     1/8 taspoon salt

     1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, and thyme
     pinch of ground white or black pepper

Whisk in by drops until the sauce begins to thicken and stiffen:
     1 cup olive or vegetable oil
As the sauce begins to thicken—when about one-third of the oil has been added—whisk in the oil more steadily, making sure each addition is thoroughly blended before adding the next. Should the oil stop being absorbed, whisk vigorously before adding more.

Finally, for the mussels, rip off their beards and combine in a large pot with:
     1 cup dry white wine
     1/2 to 1 cup minced parsley, chervil, or basil
     2 tablespoons chopped garlic
    (a fennel frond or two)
    (a pinch of saffron threads)
    (one bay leaf)
    (one dried chile or 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes)

Cover the pot, place it over high heat, and cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until most of the mussels have opened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the mussels to a serving bowl (or individual serving bowls) and pour the cooking liquid over them through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Thoroughly mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of broth into the finished aïoli. Divide the seasoned fries between plates or serve them and the mussels "family-style"... if you choose this option, try to be fair. Enjoy!

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In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine:
           1/2 cup warm (105°F to 115°F) whole milk
           1 package (2 1/4...