By The Ithaka - Published August 11, 2006 - Viewed 2005 times
From Douglas: Bernadette maintains that if I don't kill something pretty regularly I get grumpy, and while I consider this to be cruel hyperbole, I admit I've come to love hunting with a spear gun, which I never would've imagined. But when my aim is off or the fish are sparse, it seems there's always conch. Throughout the Western Caribbean, it's been nigh on impossible to anchor anywhere without snagging the hook on a conch the size of a Christmas goose. It makes you think the herd (if that's what you call a silent scattering of these guys) is just begging to be thinned out, and we've been doing our best to accomplish that. We've been eating fried conch, conch fritters, conch frittatas, grilled conch, conch fajitas, conch ceviche, conch stew, conch omelets, conch fried rice and, when feeling extravagant, a curried garlic coconut conch flambé.
Conch (the singular and plural are the same, like deer) live in houses that as a kid you'd hold up to your ear, hoping to hear the ocean. They're part of the snail family (Phylum Mollusca, Class Gastropoda), and hang out in water as shallow as three feet and goodness knows how deep, but the big guys have always been 20 or more feet down. Regardless of their depth, appropriately enough, they move at a snail's pace, and when frightened they pull in their leathery foot and just sit there, either wishing they were invisible, or just hoping you'll lose interest and go away. So once you've spotted one, assuming you can hold your breath long enough to get to him, pretty much he's yours. Conch-hunting, Bernadette says, might better be termed conch-harvesting, because plucking an essentially inert object off the ocean floor doesn't make you much of a "hunter."
Often the hardest part of the whole deal is deciding how many you want. Two big Queen conchs (shells that are 10-14 inches) make us days worth of meals, and the parts you cut away become trolling bait. While finding and retrieving conch is kid's play, evicting and cleaning them is the rub, but it's the perfect kitchen task for guys, because you get to smash and stab stuff. Ideally equipped conch-annihilators use a small prospector's pick (although a steel chisel and hammer will do just fine, meaning you can register for kitchen gifts at your local hardware store instead of Williams Sonoma).
First, deliver a quick blow to the third nodule in on the cone shaped shell, slip a knife in the new opening, sever the muscle that's holding it in, and with your free hand, grab the operculum, the hard brown disk that covers the foot. Then pull the conch out of the shell. It takes some practice to avoid making a colossal mess of smashed shell all over the foredeck, and for quite some time Bernadette insisted I perform the operation ashore or in the dinghy, but definitely out of sight. The key is to kill the conch and get it out quickly, because if you don't, it'll release a gloppy slime that sticks to your skin and everything else, this being an example in nature when pissed off means pissed on-a symbolic final revenge.
Once extracted from the shell, you need a sharp knife to cut off various appendages. Then you peel away the thick brown epidermis so you can slice and dice. This may seem like a bunch of work, but it's not like you really have all that much else to do all day, and in the end it's worth it because you have a tasty white meat, even if it is as tender as tractor tires. So no matter how you choose to prepare the meal, some more smashing with a mallet is in order, just to loosen the fiber and tenderize the meat.
For soups, stews, conch fried rice and ceviche we cut the tenderized meat into small pieces; for broiled, fried and fajitas, hammered flattened fillets, cut into strips will do fine. For fritters, chop the conch even finer or grind it. Then make a beer batter from chopped onion, chopped celery, a little Worcester sauce, some Tabasco, a cup of flour, a spoon of baking powder, an egg, and a little water or beer. Combine until you get a semi-stiff batter, spoon balls of the batter into hot oil and fry till browned thoroughly. Serve with some haberno-based hot sauce and it's a bit of heaven. Another one of our favorite recipes follows.
Garlic Thai Conch Flambé
A version of this recipe, using lobster, came originally from our friends Karen and Horst on Flow. We've altered it somewhat, made it on Ithaka a few times, most notably with our friend Paul, a very snazzy cook himself. If you don't have any conch at hand, lobster makes a dramatic main ingredient! Here we go:
- Sauté coarsely chopped onion (1/4 cup per serving) in a mixture of butter and olive oil with a minimum of 4 cloves of garlic per person.
- Add two teaspoons of a mild, yellow Thai curry paste, and an equal amount of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce sometimes called Nam Pla. (We've heard you can now order the marinized version through the Boat U.S. catalogue, but don't quote us.)
- Cook this over a low heat for a few minutes, stirring it often enough to remove any bubbles.
- Then, when its good and creamy, add rehydrated sh*take mushrooms and ¼ cup of their juice. (Every well-founded yacht should have a quantity of sh*take in the larder; in fact, we keep an emergency zip lock bag in our ditch kit along with the EPIRB.)
- Stir everything over a low heat for a minute or two. Then turn up the gas. When you start to get a little bubbling going on, add two-to-three pounds of nugget sized pieces of conch and toss them in the sauce until they are well coated and cooked through (just a couple of minutes.)
- Add some fresh pepper; really turn up the heat and scoot the ingredients to the outer edges of the pan.
- Once you're there, get ready for the show: add a half cup of brandy, carefully climb out the companionway, and light it like a torch when your guests least expect it. The alcohol will burn off quickly, and it's quite dramatic.
- Finally, add eight or so ounces of fresh coconut water or half that much canned coconut milk (milk is preferred). Stir everything together and serve it over rice. Or, if you want to get REALLY fancy, serve it over a risotto that you've cooked in a fresh fish stock. (The base we use for risotto is butter, olive oil, garlic, fresh fish stock, and extra juice from dehydrating the sh*takes.)
As they say in these parts, Buen Provecho!
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