In Long Beach Island, we’ve had a conch shell as a “decoration” for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would stick my ear against it and listen to the ocean, or at least thats what I was told I was listening to. I was completely unaware how much better they taste than they sound.
At some point in my teens, I tasted conch for the first time at The Crab Pot, a now defunct restaurant in West Palm Beach, FL. It was in the form of a fritter, and I was immediately hooked. Little fried balls of dough with chewy, flavorful chunks of conch mixed in; kind of like a Caribbean version of takoyaki. I order them whenever I see them on a menu, which is quite often now that Mommy Ryan has moved to Naples. Kristi, Tim, and I visited her this past weekend and I finally had a chance to cook my own version of one of my favorite foods.
On Saturday morning, Tim and I drove down to Everglade City to check it out. Mom had been before and Kristi had no interest due to the presence of alligators, which I mocked her about. Then we drove down there and I had to lift my feet off the floor of the car in terror when I saw sights like this out the window.
Tim and I had two goals: buy a bunch of stone crab claws at a seafood market Tim had visited previously and find a place that serves up authentic Everglades seafood for lunch. I had one additional goal: find something to cook that I could use in a blog post.
After visiting 3 or 4 restaurants and coming up with excuses to leave after seeing the menu (example: “its kind of chilly out here, I think we’re going to head to the inside dining room” then bolting for the car), we discovered City Seafood.
You wait in line, order your food, grab a beer out of the ice chest, then anxiously wait for them to call your number. It reminded me of all of my favorite shellfish places in New England and LBI.
Al fresco dining and swamps don’t usually go together, but it was a surprisingly pleasant view and had none of the mosquitos I expected. Also, I was extremely excited to try two items I had never seen on a menu before: fried whole cracked conch and grouper cheek sliders.
The fried conch is basically everything that comes out of the shell except for a couple inedible parts. Its quite chewy, but the flavor is great; very similar to the belly portion of whole fried clam bellies.
A seen in the fishing post, grouper have large flat heads with decent sized cheeks and each slider had four. Much like other cheeks I’ve tried, they were moist and tender. Tons of grouper flavor and very fresh. I haven’t included any pictures of the stuff Tim ordered because it was boring.
After lunch, we visited Grimm’s Stone Crab to pick up a couple pounds for an appetizer that night. Upon arrival, I discovered they also sold raw conch meat and my goals for the road trip were officially accomplished. We bought half a pound of frozen conch meat and headed back to Naples.
The following afternoon, I decided to make an attempt at homemade conch fritters. I had a few things going against me, mainly that I didn’t want to go through the process of deep frying the fritters and that I refused to look at a conch fritter recipe. So, I decided to make a basic hush puppy batter, mix in the conch and other additions and pan fry them. The batter started out simply with corn meal, flour, and baking powder.
Threw in an egg, milk, salt, and half a diced red onion.
With that ready to go, I pulled the conch out of the fridge to cut it up and add to the batter.
The white parts are where all the flavor is, but the colored areas are just a thin membrane that covers the meat. Its all edible, so I didn’t try to do any elaborate butchering, just chopped the meat up into small cubes and added it to the batter.
After a few shakes from a bottle of Cholula, some lemon juice and black pepper, I whisked the batter a little more then let it rest while I heated olive oil in a pan.
The first batch was a test batch. I dropped varying sized spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil to A) see how the fritters taste and B) see how big the fritters should “B”. Wokka wokka.
After tasting the first batch, we decided the batter was definitely under seasoned. The meat to dough ratio wasn’t out of whack with what I’ve had in restaurants, but the dough was lacking a complimentary shellfish flavor. I added more seasoning, but noted that in the future I should replace some of the milk used in the batter with clam juice or fish stock.
Once the seasoning was as good as it would be, I cooked the remainder of the fritter batter.
I was a lot better at judging when these were golden brown than I was with the fish cakes.
We kept the early batches warm in the oven while everything cooked and eventually ended up with quite a large bowl full of fritters.
We served them with some sauce options: tartar sauce (made with dill pickles, the obvious best way), cocktail sauce, and the stone crab mustard sauce I mentioned earlier. I thought they were delicious, though definitely different than the restaurant variety.
I really enjoyed the fritters, there were just a lot of them. The sweetness of the corn meal worked well with the shellfish and the cocktail sauce in particular matched up really well with the taste. If I did it again I would make the same amount of batter (with some seafood stock mixed in) but probably add three quarters of a pound of conch. I’d also like to make these again with other types of shellfish and can’t wait until I am at somebody else’s house to try a bay scallop and shrimp version.
More indecision about next week’s entry. Will have to hit the Italian market this weekend.