Gordon Stewart calls himself a culinary evangelist.
He makes converts with his food.
“I’m a fan of simplicity, but I’m also a fan of bold flavors and unexpected moves,” said Stewart, co-owner and executive chef at Gordon’s On Blueberry Hill, in Freeland on Whidbey Island.
Mussels and clams in a coconut curry broth is one of his favorite examples. He likes to challenge people’s assumptions about how ingredients can and can’t work in a dish.
“You wouldn’t automatically put it (curry) with mussels and clams,” Stewart said. “But, because of the coconut milk and the kaffir lime leaves, it really backs up the flavor of the mussels and it really complements it.”
Stewart, 45, also serves mussels and clams in fennel broth, but he prefers the curry because it “challenges the palate.”
“I like food that surprises people,” he said.
The dish is loaded with herbs, including Thai basil, cilantro and lemongrass, and a green curry paste reinforces those flavors. The coconut milk makes the sauce creamy.
Stewart has had the dish on the menu since he and Anneliese Petrie opened the restaurant in 2005 after working together at restaurants in Mukilteo and Langley.
Stewart loves his job.
“I have such a passion for food that I can’t shut up about it,” he said.
Gordon’s sits atop a hill with a fine view of Holmes Harbor. Stewart’s go-to mussels are harvested about 25 miles north in Penn Cove near Coupeville by one of the largest exporters in the country, Penn Cove Mussels.
“It’s always good to have all your ingredients close where you can name where they are at,” Stewart said. “Everybody loves them.”
Stewart makes pasta, steak and seafood, as well as Cajun and Creole classics that hearken back to his days cooking at high-end restaurants in New Orleans in the 1990s.
His biggest influence was the late Paul Prudhomme, known as the godfather of Cajun cuisine. Stewart went on what he calls “pilgrimages” to the historic city to apprentice at restaurants like K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where Prudhomme was chef proprietor.
The Arlington native wanted to be a cook ever since kindergarten.
“They did a thing for Mother’s Day where they put us all in chef hats,” Stewart said. “I guess it could be traced clear back to then. But I was basically a pork-fat kid who liked to be in the kitchen.”
Stewart was 10 when he first donned an apron. He hung out in kitchens all through grade school — even helping in the school cafeteria — and eventually got a job cooking with his mom at Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington.
He enrolled in Everett-based Sno-Isle Tech Skill Center’s culinary arts program while he was in high school, then worked at The Bistro in Arlington.
“From there, the passion grew,” Stewart said. “Then I worked in New Orleans and got hooked with a certain style of food.”
The ripple effects of his bayou experiences are reflected on the menu: barbecue shrimp and grits, breaded catfish and spicy seafood jambalaya are just a few examples of Gordon’s Cajun and Creole options.
The coconut curry broth, however, is influenced by Thai curry.
“I used to go this little Asian store in Everett,” Stewart said. “I started a friendship with the owner. Eventually she gave me some of her secrets. She told me about kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves and a lot of little tips and tricks.”
He was 17 at the time. He’s been perfecting his Asian cooking ever since.
“Even though we have a sauce that probably has 20 ingredients — it’s complex — the fact that you can still taste the mussels and clams in this dish is what I think is surprising,” Stewart said.
Stewart acknowledged that the recipe can look daunting, but said even novice home cooks will have no problem making it. Many of the ingredients can be found in grocery stores, while the green curry paste is available in most Asian markets.
As for the cooking itself, Stewart said the key for beginners is starting with the mussels and clams before sauteing the garlic and shallots.
“It will also cool down the pan enough so you’re not going to burn your garlic and onions,” Stewart said.
Another pro tip: Once all the ingredients are cooking together, cover them for about 15 seconds.
“It steams the mussels and clams to allow them to open,” Stewart said. “The quicker they open, the more tender they’re going to be. I don’t believe in overcooking mussels and clams. As soon as they open, they’re ready to eat.”
Mussels and clams in coconut curry broth
For the curry broth:
1 stem lemongrass, finely chopped
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (Thai basil is
¼ cup Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 tablespoons sherry (or whichever wine you’re
drinking with dinner)
4 leaves kaffir lime leaf
2 tablespoons green curry paste
1 15-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup orange juice
1 ounce dark sesame oil (optional)
For the clams and mussels:
2 ounces canola or olive oil
1 pound manila clams, scrubbed and rinsed
1 pound Penn Cove mussels, scrubbed and rinsed
3 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Splash sherry or white wine (optional)
Combine all curry broth ingredients into a pot. Cook on medium heat until the broth starts to simmer. Remove from stove, strain and set aside.
In a large pan, on medium to high heat, add oil. Add shellfish, followed by the remaining ingredients. Add a splash of sherry or white wine, if desired. Cover with lid and allow to steam. When the mussels and clams begin to open, add the curry broth.
Place in a serving bowl and garnish with anise hyssop (licorice mint) leaves and blossoms. Enjoy as-is or with white or brown rice.
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the fall issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.