Mussels web over rocky outcrops in splotchy patterns by using threads called “byssus’ and secreting a sort of superglue; these bi-valves dominate the upper part of inter-tidal zones-starfish eat them in the lower parts. Their threads and glue, not to mention crashing waves, can make it difficult to remove them from the rocks, but they are plentiful along the coast, and delicious.
In California, there's a quarantine on mussels from May through October. This is because the water warms up (relatively speaking) on the coast during these months. These are filter feeders and can absorb toxic substances, so only harvest from pristine areas. Also, always call the local Fish & Wildlife (In CA. 800 553 4133) to make sure there is no harmful algae in the water and that they are safe to eat. Don’t put them in a plastic bag and seal. This will kill them.
Tools Needed: gloves, heavy bladed knife or crowbar, bucket or bag.
Step 1: Harvest the Mussels
While mussels are easy to find along a coastline, they are often in the "impact zone", or where waves crash against rocks. So check the tides and make sure to go out on low tide. Also, try to harvest on the side of the boulder where there is no chance a rogue waves will hit you and drag you out to sea. Also, make sure you are nowhere near farms or residential areas where toxic run-off is going into the sea.
Because of mussels' threads or "byssus" and their own type of superglue, these guys really cling to the rocks. Use a large flat edged knife or a small crowbar to remove them. You want to be gentle, and not over-harvest them. Mussels create habitat for hundreds of other types of critters, like tiny barnacles and the less tiny gooseneck barnacles. While gooseneck barnacles are not pretty-they sort of look like a dragon toenail-look closely at this picture, and you'll see them protruding out. They are totally edible and pretty tasty.
Step 2: Clean the Mussels
Once you've gotten a small stash of the blue bi-valves, you can put them in a bucket of water, and let them de-grit themselves, or rinse them in the sink. Don't ever tie them up in a plastic bag, or you may suffocate and kill them all. You can tell if a mussel is alive and well if they stay tightly shut when exposed to air. If they are open or opening or the shell is cracked, toss them out and don't eat them. Clean the threads off by giving a quick, hard yank down on them. It's not dangerous to eat them, just not very pleasant and wild harvested mussels have more than commercially grown ones, which usually have been cleaned.
Step 3: Steamed Mussels
A quick, classic recipe for steaming mussels is to chop garlic (finely), onions and tomatoes (roughly). Sautee them in butter along with branches of fresh thyme, pepper and salt to taste. Once they are sauteed, add either 1/2 cup of white wine, or beer or hard apple cider might work. For this batch, I added a 1/2 cup of El Castor. It's brandy made from prickly pear cactus and adds depth to the sauce. Put the lid on the pot, and let the mussels steam for about 15 minutes. When they have all opened, they are ready. Have a baguette for dipping in the sauce.
Step 4: How to Smoke Mussels
Smoking mussels is simple, and while they may be a little drier than when steamed, it adds a nice flavor to them. Soak 2 cups wood chips like apple or cedar in water for 30 minutes to an hour. You can add pine needles as well, for a woodsy flavor. Remove the chips and pine from the water and layer them in the bottom of a shallow baking pan. Put a grill on top of this and place the mussels on the grill. Cover it with foil and turn the stovetop flames on low. Let them open. It takes longer than steaming them.