Weird Crap I Cook: Whelk Chowder

Seems like the end of summer break from posting is unavoidable.  Over the past couple weeks I’ve been in Little Compton with my family and attended an awesome wedding in the Poconos.  While I have been cooking a lot there haven’t been too many interesting meals.

That all changed when we hit the fish market in Tiverton, RI on our way back from visiting my aunts in Jamestown last week.  I immediately noticed something I’d never cooked or eaten before sitting in a container next to the clams and mussels.  The guy behind the counter called them conch, but they were smaller and seemingly had a much thinner shell than what I would traditionally call conch.  They looked a lot more like large sea snails (or whelks).

Pretty average statement from me: "I've never cooked those before, I'll take 6 pounds"

The seafood purveyor wasn’t too helpful on cooking instructions either, instructing me to “cook them” when I asked the best way to prepare them.  So, as usual, I would be on my own and looking to the internet for these.

The general instructions broke down to boiling or steaming the whelks for a few minutes then removing them from their shell and discarding the inedible parts.  Other than that, you just slice and use them like any other shellfish.  With that in mind, I decided to make whelk & shrimp fritters and a whelk chowder, but since I’ve covered the fritter angle pretty well previously, I will focus on the chowder in this entry.

Seemed like pretty straightforward shellfish aside from the hard foot that looked like a flat mussel shell. That thing kinda scared me

The next morning (I was told they keep well overnight in the fridge) I got started by cleaning the whelks and placing them in a steamer pot.

I was careful to arrange open-end up so that they would basically boil in their own liquid. Rereading that statement, I feel kind of like a sadistic jerk

I let these steam for about 8 minutes then took them off the heat and removed the cover to let them cool for 20 minutes to make them easier to handle.

The lighting in the LC kitchen was a little tough to deal with around the time the whelks finished cooking, so it was good to take a break to let things cool down

When it came time to shell the whelks it became clear that the hard foot wasn’t an issue and peeled right off.

It really did look like a combination of cooked conch and snails at this point

Once the foot was gone the meat was easily removed by sticking a fork in the dense meat near the opening and pulling out slowly.

Big thanks to Kristi who spent the afternoon responding to constant calls for "action shots"

This was about when Kristi's reactions officially shifted from "COOL!" (when she first saw the shells) to "gross" (when the meat came out)

The contents of the shells quickly piled up on the plates, and the meat was a bizarre mix of photogenic and unappetizing.

Kristi is an incredibly good amateur shellfish photographer. This one and the wild mussels shot on the header of this blog are her best work

I rinsed any sediment off of each piece and then started separating the edible parts from the inedible parts of each whelk.  Thank god for the internet or else I likely would have eaten the whole thing and gotten sick.

Grabbed the soft tail end (I think it was the intestines)...

...and pulled, cleanly separating the guts (right hand) from the meat (left hand)

Final step in preparing the whelks was also well documented by Kristi.

All the different colored areas are edible and have different textures. I think this is the mouth of the whelk

As instructed by a ruddy Brittish lady in a you tube video about whelks, I cut straight into the whelk along the mouth line...

...and removed the softer off-colored areas inside

After repeating this process with each whelk, I finally decided to cut a sliver off and taste.  The flavor was strong, in a good way, like a combination of a fully cooked bay scallop and a clam belly but the meat was also extremely rubbery and chewy.

From there, all of the meat went into a sandwich bag for storage until it was time to cook the chowder later in the day.

It was a pretty stuffed sandwich bag, probably between 1 and 2 pounds of meat

The chowder is a variation of the clam chowder I have been making with Tim the past couple years (read: I chopped the clams and he followed a recipe).  Since he was refusing to help, I had some freedom to stray from the recipe.  Instead of starting with the usual bacon, I browned a cubed link of chorizo and added chopped onion, carrot, and celery along with salt and pepper.

A good start for pretty much anything

After a few minutes cooking together, I whisked in flour, a quart of seafood stock, sherry, fresh thyme, and a couple bay leaves.  After that simmered for 10 minutes or so, I added cubed red potatoes.

I love the kitchen sink aspect of making chowders, soups, and chili. Its tough to add too much stuff, and the addition of corn is almost always welcome

While the potatoes cooked for about 10 minutes, I cut the whelk meat down to bite-sized pieces.  Due to the chewiness of the whelk, I wanted to keep them small and thin.

Pretty interesting looking stuff

I ended up adding about half of the chopped whelk meat for the chowder and using the other half in the whelk and shrimp fritters.

I think the keys to good chowder are lots of thyme, lots of sherry, and what meat you use to compliment the shellfish (bacon, chorizo, etc.)

Along with the whelk I stirred in some heavy cream and about a cup and a half of 1% milk to get the chowder to the color and consistency I was looking for.  That simmered for a few minutes and then I removed it from the heat to be reheated a few hours later with dinner.

Or at least that was the plan.  Tim threw a tantrum because he was making ribs for dinner and thought that the chowder wouldn’t go well with the pork.  So he demanded I make fritters instead.  Freakin’ jerk.

The chowder went into the fridge and waited to be reheated the following day for lunch.  It ended up working out pretty well, and gave me the opportunity to add the kernels from an ear of corn and some more sherry as well.

My chowders always have a little spice to them due to lots of black pepper, but I a like to add a little hot sauce and oyster crackers to my bowls. Also, Little Compton is beautiful and everything in the background of this foto is awesome

The chowder likely benefited from a night in the fridge since the flavors had more time to come together, but it didn’t change the fact that there were a lot of textures in each bowl.  The veggies, chorizo, and whelk all were very different and each bite had a little of each. The whelk was almost the texture of a sliced bouncy ball, but the pieces were small enough that a couple chews and they were gone.

Overall, the flavor of the whelk was hidden a bit in the chowder, so it mostly just tasted like a clam chowder.  The fritters had a lot more of the clam belly/cooked scallop flavor I mentioned earlier.  Despite the lack of whelk-y, the chowder was pretty delicious and all 12 bowls of it went quickly.

Not sure what will be next, but I hope to be cooking more with summer travel done.

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3 thoughts on “Weird Crap I Cook: Whelk Chowder

  1. I’ve never seen anyone other than my mother eat whelks. She would steam them and then douse them with vinegar before digging in. Unfortunately I wasn’t gifted with her intestinal fortitude.

    Well done!

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