Friday afternoon Joe and I escaped real life for a night and a day and headed up to Whidbey Island for the Penn Cove Mussel Fest. We spent the night in a very cute (I had a feeling Joe was being tortured by all the lacy curtains and doilies) bed and breakfast, a huge Victorian manse situated on the hill overlooking Penn Cove and the Cascade mountains, and started Saturday off with a lovely breakfast of assorted homemade scones accompanied by mini molded butter shapes–mine was a heart–on tiny floral plates, a fruit cup with yogurt, and a nicely seasoned soufle-type egg dish. Then we braced ourselves against the wind and headed out to explore the waterfront shops, marvel at the violent seascape in front of us (the mussel farm tour via boat was canceled, to our great disappointment), buy a stocking cap to warm my hair-whipped head, and work up an appetite for our mussel chowder tastings. Over the next few hours we worked our way through seven different Dixie-cup sized offerings (we opted for a ticket that included only half of the town’s competitors and split each cup), the best being a tasty concoction that was drizzled with basil oil.
The best mussels, though, were being cooked up in a giant paella pan outside a little wine/gourmet shop called Bayleaf. The pan was big enough for me to bathe in, set up over an even bigger grill, and filled with bubbling wine, butter, ginger, garlic and mussels, wafting out a giant enticing steam cloud of yum over several blocks. Served in a paper bowl with a couple of stacks of fresh artisan bread to soak up the juices, we stashed the spork we were given and each used an empty shell to pluck the juicy morsels out of the remaining mussels.
Before heading out of town we returned to Bayleaf and picked up the makings of a poet’s picnic for home later that night: a bottle of wine, some goat gouda cheese with coriander, some Bleu d’Auvergne, rosemary flat bread and some French sea salt butter. I love the butter so much I’m afraid I’ll never go back to regular.
For the sake of balance, we stopped off at the Greenbank Farm for a couple of wine tastings, then popped into their cafe for some warm pie and coffee: loganberry and marionberry; no splitting this time around. The temperature was dropping, the ducks outside surrounding the pond starting to hunker down against impending snow, but we were snug and cozy with our moist, yet flaky crusted, mouthwatering sweet and tart berry pie. Whidbey’s Pies has got it down. I remember when Nathan was staying with us for a weekend when he was about nine, and I got a craving for pie, so we bought a frozen Whidbey pie, baked it and had it for dinner. I made Nathan promise that he could absolutely not tell his father we had only pie for dinner.
Today it looks like someone dumped super-coarse sea salt all over our neighborhood, and as the snow/hail slowly melts I nibble bland crackers and sip soda, because my stomach is in a slight state of remorse at the rich flavors so happily bestowed upon it yesterday. Still, I don’t regret it.
If you like mussels, and are up for a spicy treat, try the following recipe:
SPICY THAI STEAMED MUSSELS
5 pounds mussels
a 1 3 1/2-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups fresh cilantro sprigs
Accompaniment: lime wedges
Scrub mussels well and remove beards. Squeeze enough juice from limes to measure 1/3 cup. In an 8-quart kettle boil lime juice, coconut milk, wine, curry paste, garlic, fish sauce, and sugar over high heat, stirring, 2 minutes. Add mussels, tossing to combine. Cook mussels, covered, stirring occasionally, until opened, about 5 to 8 minutes. (Discard any unopened mussels.) Chop cilantro and toss with mussels.
Serve mussels with lime wedges, and lots of good bread to soak up the juices. (If you have any leftover broth, use it the next day as a soup base for some Thai chicken soup.)