I just returned from a remarkably unsuccessful surf fishing trip. It was just before a hurricane and the fish were just not biting. The only "keepers" I caught, I did so with my cast net while catching minnows for bait. I continued to fish every high tide, because the simple act of surf fishing is enjoyable - the sand, the water, the sea birds, the indescribable beauty of the shore... but, at low tide I visited a little tidal creek. I caught blue crabs down there but mainly, I gathered shellfish. I ate my fill of raw oysters daily, just shucking them and slurping them down while standing in the mud. I gathered beautiful, sweet, meaty clams and buckets full of mussels.
The clams went into a simple chowder - onions and celery sweated down in butter until translucent, bacon, whole milk and half and half, potatoes, salt and pepper.
The Mussels were the star of the table. I found them along the edges, in huge colonies clinging to the aquatic grasses and reeds. I could have literally filled my pickup truck bed with them with very little effort. I harvested several dozen large mussels... 4-6 inches long. Back at the house, I washed the mud off and scrubbed them with a stiff brush until all the mud was gone. The shell is shiny, silvery mother of pearl just under the surface. Mussels have a"beard", the fibers with which they attach themselves to other surfaces or each other. When fresh, these can be pulled off by strong hands. Otherwise, a pair of needle nose pliers does the job.
Steaming is the best method for cooking mussels. I picked up a half bushel of tomatoes from a local farm on the way down and had cooked a gallon of the riper ones down the night before. I sweated down finely chopped onions and celery tops/leaves in butter and added two cups of tomatoes in a stockpot. Mussels are full of slaty brine, so no salt was needed. I tossed in some black pepper and a glass of white wine. Once this came to the boil, filled the pot with the cleaned and tightly closed mussels. I put the lid on and waited 10 minutes. When I opened the pot, all of the mussels had opened. I removed the pot from the heat, and left the lid on while it cooled.
The only (temporarily due to what they eat) poisonous mussels in America grow on the west coast. However, it was still very warm weather with lots of warm water being pumped in by the approaching storm... and this was a heavily populated area... so, just to be sure there was no chance of bacterial contamination, I used a two stage cooking method. After the mussels cooled, I removed them from their shells, and returned them to the cooking liquid. This, I simmered for a few minutes before serving.
With a slotted spoon, I heaped mussels and tomatoes over white rice and enjoyed a wonderful meal. In fact, I ate the entire mess of mussels in just two meals, Their savory/sweet/rich/meaty/briny taste, that is like a combination of an oyster and a clam went so well with both white and red wine that I had quite a feast with a few ginger snaps for dessert.
I was left with nearly a gallon of broth from all of the mussels and vegetables. I strained it and used this to make several more meals. Each day, I would serve a ladle full of the broth over buttered rice along with whatever I caught. A few blue crabs boiled in the broth until their claws dropped, picked and dusted with creole seasonings were jaw droopingly good. A few shrimp prepared the same way were well worth sore shoulders from tossing the cast net and the many bug bites suffered in their capture. The few fish I caught were poached in the broth and their flavors enhanced but not compromised. Each batch of seafood cooked in the broth added complexity, but the flavor of the mussels remained.
Fishing is fishing.... it is always worthwhile, but it is not always catching. Shellfish, bivalves, mollusks and crustaceans are often more easily harvested and never disappoint when fresh. Hours spent with my dog watching the sea and the sea birds (there were lots of pelicans around and I even saw a bald eagle steal a fish from a sea gull!), drinking wine and eating the freshest of seafoods are good for the soul... even when the fish don't bite nearly as much as the "no see ums", mosquitoes and sand flies.