Chasing Penn Cove “Mussel Madness”

By Kurt and Michelle Winner

What makes Whidbey Island so special? Is it the feeling of being away from it all? The journey to get there (you may drive to the ferry and ride on)? The many water views and beaches? The feeling of a slower pace and small town values? Or the plethora of fresh food ? I think it is a magical combination of these attributes that makes this place so unique.

On Whidbey recently to explore Oak Harbor, we stopped in Coupeville. And then it started. This “Mussel Madness” of mine. You have to try fresh mussels as close to the source as possible for the addiction to take hold. And in Oak Harbor or on Whidbey in general that means mussels from nearby Penn Cove.

I had Penn Cove Mussels for lunch with a simple herbed brine at Toby‘s Tavern. I ordered them in Oak Harbor at local favorite Flyers Restaurant and Brewery steamed with white wine. I ate them at Seabolt’s Smokehouse, owned by a family of fishermen, where you can pop in for the freshest seafood to take away or sit down and dine. I had them at Front Street Grill in curry sauce. And finally I had them at one of my favorite dining experiences in the Pacific Northwest, Frasers in Oak Harbor. For now until I return to this island that bills itself as “The Shortest Distance to Far Away©” I will be content with Penn Cove Shellfish’s overnight delivery.

Here is a classic recipe from Penn Cove Mussels that I’ll be using for my home-style mussels.

A left hand ladling mussels into a bowl held by the right hand. There is steam all around.

A hot steamy bowl of Penn Cove Mussels.

Moules Mariniere (Mussels in Wine Broth)

Serves 2-4


2 lbs. Penn Cove Mussels, cleaned (allow a pound per person for meal or ¼ – ½ for appetizer
1/2 cup dry white wine

Provençal Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil, plus extra to garnish

Bouquet Garni
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 lb. ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped,
or 1 – 14oz can chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper

Store the live mussels in your refrigerator and cover with ice or a damp cloth to keep moist. They should not stand in water, so drain liquid from the container daily. Usually the mussels will be de-bearded when purchased, however, if the mussels still have their “beards” (byssal threads), wait until within an hour of cooking to remove the mussel beards by giving them a sharp pull toward the pointed tips of the mussels. Lightly rinse the mussels under fresh, running water before cooking, then set aside. If any mussels are gaping open, they are getting weak, discard any that will not attempt to stay closed after squeezing their shell shut or if they have broken shells or an “off” odor.


To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onions, celery, garlic, basil and bouquet garni, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until softened but not browned. Mix in the tomato paste and tomatoes, salt, pepper, and sugar, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Put the mussels in a casserole dish suitable for top of a burner, with the wine, over high heat, and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes only, until the mussels have opened, stirring frequently to ensure they are evenly cooked.

Pour off the cooking liquid, discard any mussels that have not opened, and return the opened mussels, in their shells, to the casserole dish.

Pour the hot tomato sauce over the mussels and heat through. Sprinkle with chopped basil and serve at once. Add crusty artisan bread and a salad and you have arrived!

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