The many gifts of the ocean

Pier's End in Garibaldi, courtesy of Panoramio (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/36025836)
The ocean has been called the world's oldest restaurant, and it really is.  The ocean's capability to feed you is astounding, even as it struggles with our impositions of progress, depleted fisheries and endless waves of waste.  Despite the bruises and black eyes we give it, the endless blue brine and rocky headlands never fail to deliver the most amazing and easily harvested delicacies.

Being in Oregon, we are gifted with an incredible wild coastline. From the northernmost jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River to the southern redwood-flanked basalt formations, the shore is littered with a vast variety of crustaceans, mollusks, fish and plants.  The bays are full of sand shrimp and clams at low tide.  The rocky shores are littered with tide pool teeming with life: urchins, anemones, crabs, fish, chitons, mussels, limpets, starfish and so much more.  Docks and jetties are perfect places to drop a crab pot and hoist up the most delectable Dungeness  and Red Rock crabs, as well as throw a line in the water for sea bass and other shore fish.  And, licenses for shellfish collecting are very reasonably priced at $7 for residents and $20.50 for nonresidents. 

So it was that we set out to the coast to take part in the bounty of the sea.  First, we did a lot of research on the rules, etiquette and technique of collecting shells, shrimp and crabs.  There is a great deal of information on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website, but we found the best general information on Washington's website. You absolutely MUST check to make sure harvesting is allowed before you collect shellfish, as there are regularly harmful algae blooms, red tides and other environmental factors that can make them toxic.  State websites are usually up to date with this information, but shellfish hotlines are reportedly more accurate.  In Oregon, the number is (503) 986-4728, and in Washington State it's (800) 562-5632.

The next step was to go to the outdoor store and get some supplies.  We got a shrimp gun, a clam tube and a couple of crab snares that attach to your fishing pole, and our shellfish licenses.   Then it was off to the coast!

We started out at the southern end of the mouth of the Necanicum River at low tide in search of razor clams.  In our first 10 minutes we finally spotted a promising hole and dug out a lovely fat clam.  Unfortunately our luck was not so good from that point on due to the prior day's heavy surf that sent the clams in a deep retreat.   We searched beach after beach with no real luck.

Finally, we headed south to the sleepy and wonderful port town of Garibaldi and the aptly-named Crab Harbor.  The 12th street pier juts out into the harbor to the old Pier's End Coast Guard station, an amazingly beautiful old building that a local told us had been there "forever."  While we were crabbing there a few days later, a well-dressed woman walked hurriedly up the pier sizing it up.  We made small talk, curious about her seemingly incongruous appearance on the pier and she mentioned she was the safety coordinator for a temporary agency and they were contracted to help with the pending demolition and dismantling of the building.  So much for history!

On our first trip, we managed to snare a few nice big crabs, but they kept falling off as they reached the surface of the water.  After that disappointment, we went into Tillamook and bought a crab ring which yielded a really nice big crab, just as the light was fading.  We caught several females and a couple undersize males as well which we put back in the water.   It was intoxicating waiting for the baskets to emerge every time.

A few days later, we made it back and managed to get a couple nice crabs, and we foraged for shellfish around the rocks of Barview Jetty.  We found a great supply of mussels, and some winkles and snails which we gleefully put in our mesh bag.  The mussels were particularly beautiful.

A crab ring is definitely the right tool for the job!

At the end of the day, it felt like we had a feast in the making.  And, we did, as you will see below.

Seafood Pasta

We put all of this over tagliatelle and had a side of bread with it.  It was amazing!  Recipes for those will be forthcoming.  For now, it's all about the sea bounty.

Preparing the shellfish:
I'll go into what we did with our shellfish, but your process may vary depending on your catch.  We had mussels, winkles and a few turban snails.  For mussels, you simply scrub the outsides of the shells.  You can remove the barnacles with a dull knife if they bother you, but they can cut you and they wont hurt anything if you leave them on.  You also want to remove the "beard" from each mussel by pulling it out.  It comes from the inside of the shell and is not exactly easy to get without a vigorous effort.  It's worth the effort though, because the beard is no fun to eat.  For clams, just scrub them clean and make sure they're not open.  If they are hanging open prior to any cooking, they are expired and need to be discarded.  This is only if they remain open.  They should, with a little probing, close up to "hide" from you if they are well.  If they do not open during cooking this is your second warning that this little guy is expired!

Winkles and Turban snails!

For snail and like critters, you should use a scrub brush and clean the outsides of the shells.  Next, soak them in salted tap water for 30 minutes prior to cooking them, making sure to change the water if it starts looking murky or cloudy -- and don't forget to re-salt it if you do.  Once they're looking good they're ready to be plonked into some boiling salted water.  For around 6 minutes.  Make sure you see a pink or white foot inside the shell and not a little claw.  It's easy to accidentally grab a hermit crab by accident!

Crabs, mussels, snail and a lonely razor clam

For crab, you need to "field clean" it.  I highly recommend this process for dispatching them.  If you clean your crab where you are crabbing it should be near time to cook them as game wardens check crab catches for females (which are illegal) and males and cleaning them can look like you're trying to obscure the gender of the animal. This is illegal in many places to have prepped crabs because of this.  So wait until you're all done before venturing into the cleaning. Once separated, you can wash the crab thoroughly in cool water, making sure all of the various inner bits and gills are gone.  Don't be startled if the crab legs continue to move for some time after the fact.  If he is in half and cleaned he is NOT alive.

I am salivating just writing this caption

Cooking the shellfish (clams/mussels):

In a cast iron frying pan (or your favorite skillet), add one finely minced medium sized sweet yellow onion and enough olive oil to coat the bits.   Turn up the heat to a medium simmer so the onions begin to cook.  Next, add a dash of freshly cracked black pepper and a pinch of coarse sea salt.  At the ready, you'll want a selection of freshly-chopped herbs.  We used garlic fronds and chives, but you could use any savory herb you wish.  Once the onions are clear, toss in the shellfish!  Next, add a 1/2 Cup of dry cooking sherry or vermouth slowly over the whole collection.  Shells should be starting to open at this point.  Cover the pan with a lid so they can steam, shaking it periodically so the shells get evenly cooked.  After most (hopefully all) the shells are opened, it's done.  It takes no longer than 4 minutes for them to open.  Any shells that stay closed after cooking should be discarded, as they were already headed to Davy Jones' Locker and not your stomach. 

Cooking the crab:

Crab is pretty straight forward, and the variations are infinite.  In the most basic sense, you want to boil it in salty water.  Since you're doing pieces in this version, the cook time is around 6 minutes.  But basically, you wait a full minute past when the crab carapace turns bright orange.  You definitely don't want to overcook it.  The brine can have everything from herbs to beer in it.  It's also great with nothing but sea salt, which is how we did it.

Winkles look amazing if you can get them out of their shell.  Note the custom tool to remove them.

Cooking Snails & Stuff:
Little shell mollusks like snails, limpets and winkles can be cooked much the same way as crab.   I do recommend a little seasoning in the water, as they can have a widely varying taste.  Some of the little guys tasted amazing, while others were... well, gamey.  Each part of the mollusk has a different taste, and I suggest a sampling of each part to decide which you like.  I will say that these creatures are not necessarily for the faint of heart, and removing them from the shell takes the construction of a special hook shape made from a large safety pin.  Unless you're really, really, really hungry, these may not be worth the trouble.

Last step is to throw all this goodness on top of your noodles and have a feast!  And, be sure and thank the ocean for all of the gifts it gives us.

The bounty!

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