Foraging for Food: Caribbean Conch and Lobster

Last week, Kristi and I headed to the Bahamas with Janet in tow.  That’s right, I occasionally work, write a blog, AND take island vacations!  How do I keep it all balanced?  Well, It’s really no big deal, no need to call me Super Dad or anything.

Awful spooves aside, Brother John rented a house on the beach in Eleuthera for his 40th birthday and invited friends and family down to enjoy it with him and Julie.  With the holidays and a couple hectic weeks of work, I didn’t give much thought to the vacation in advance.  I did some research on the fish available at the local docks and saw there was a solid farmstand, but aside from the food I had no idea where I was going.  Well then.

Yep, friggin' spoiled jerk blogger had no idea he was going here.  I was blown away when I saw the perfect family vacation house and the absurd ocean out front

Yep, this spoiled jerk blogger had no idea he was going here.  I think I might have just used the second person tense for the first time ever.  I was blown away when I saw the perfect family vacation house and the absurd ocean out front

It wasn’t until we were on the second leg of our trip down, in a tiny propeller plane looking at the green sea, that I realized I might be able to forage some conch while I was down there.  When we arrived at the Five Palms Beach House and I saw the spears and slingshot-style spearguns, I knew I was in for a week of stupidity, heartache, and injuries all at the hands of some shellfish.

Now that you’re hooked, this post is gonna be one wordy son of a so-and-so.  You’ve been warned.

On the ride in from the airport we picked up a 3 pound slab of grouper at the docks for $20 so we were set for dinner, but that didn’t stop Tim and I from doing a snorkeling search for some shellfish.  Thirty minutes later, we had these.

I won't tell you which conch was bigger, but originally this caption was a furious rant about Tim trying to upstage me on my own blog.  Friggin jerk

I won’t tell you who got the bigger conch, but originally this caption was a furious rant about Tim trying to upstage me on my own blog.  Friggin jerk

They look like rocks when you are snorkeling above, but Tim and I had some idea of the shape that we were looking for.  Once you dive down 10-15 feet and flip the rocks, you see the distinct color of conch and the little guy hanging out in there.

It was amazing, with these tilted up it was like you could really hear the ocean.  Wokka Wokka!  I was there all week folks!

It was amazing, with these tilted up it was like you could really hear the ocean.  Wokka Wokka!  I was there all week folks!

Big Peter, the caretaker at the beach house was a wealth of information on how to clean the shellfish in the waters around the house.  But, he’d gone home for the day, and I had watched some youtube videos so of course I fashioned myself an expert.

Side note: Big Peter doesn’t deserve that title since I am bigger than him, but I’m following Arnold’s lead from Pumping Iron and using “Big” as my nickname prefix of choice these days.

Anyhoo, I headed down to the garage and assembled my tools.

"I don't know what you have planned tonight, but count me out."  Simpsons references!  Did you forget that you were reading the blog of an unathletic overweight male?!?!?

“Homer, I don’t know what you have planned tonight, but count me out!”  Simpsons references!  Did you forget that you were reading the blog of an unathletic overweight white male?

Shelling a conch seemed easy enough.  Just create a hole at the pointed end to break the vaccuum inside, use a knife to disconnect the conch from the shell and they should easily pull right out.  So, that’s what I did.

Just a little chisel and hammer and seconds later you have dinner.  Yeeeok.

Just a little chisel and hammer and seconds later you have dinner.  YeeeeeeOK.

First thing I noticed, the shell didn’t have the distinct crown you associate with conch.  Second thing was that the shell was extremely thick and more difficult to get through than expected.  Once open, I tried to “chase” the conch out of the shell by cutting it free, poking it, pushing it with my thumb, cursing at it, everything.  Eventually I recognized I wasn’t going to get it out of there and decided to go berzerk with the hammer until enough of the shell was cracked away and the meat was accessible.  During this time Tim hid his conch from me so I couldn’t ruin it.

Once out of the shell, it again looked a little different than the conch meat I’d seen before.  It also had a bit of exterior sliminess I wasn’t used to, possibly related to my awful job shelling it.

IMG_2228

Usually there is more of a “foot” on these things and a lot more soft white meat.  Regardless, I recognize how bizarre conch and whelk meat looks

Given the need to make a full dinner and the tremendous amount of no-see-um bites I was coated with from cracking shellfish at dusk, I chopped the meat and bagged it for the fridge.  I did take a taste of the raw meat and it was interesting: very sweet, a little crunchy, and not seafood-tasting at all.

Next day Big Peter came over and told us that the conch we got isn’t edible.  He ended up backpedaling on that (after giving me quite a scare) and saying that Bahamians don’t eat it by choice but didn’t have a real reason for it.  Generally Queen Conch is the conch of choice and these were Milk Conch, which further research revealed is indeed edible, just way more of a pain to deal with and slimy.  Soooooo, the conch stayed in the fridge to be used as bait later in the week and Tim’s got chucked back into the ocean.

The next day was a little overcast.

The mornings mostly looked like this, overcast but pretty before burning off by noon

The mornings mostly looked like this, overcast but pretty before burning off by noon.  Janet loved exploring and nearly getting awful splinters

Early in the day Tim and I went out for another round of “spear fishing” (read: shooting at pretty fish and missing) and not finding any queen conch.  After we were skunked, I drove out to the docks to buy some conch.  Seems like the right move since you can get 7 shelled conch for $10.

Not the first time conch has been cleaned on this blog, by my count this is the third

Not the first time conch has been cleaned on this blog, by my count this is the third.  But, you shouldn’t trust my count and I encourage you to prove me wrong!

Not too difficult really: pull out the intestine, cut/peel away the colored outer skin and the tough muscle by the foot leaving the white meat that feels like a firm scallop.  The skin and muscle should be boiled in a pot for an hour to tenderize it, while the white meat is tender enough to be used as is.  I ended up making traditional conch ceviche, coconut conch ceviche, conch fritters, and a conch seafood rice, exactly what John dreamed of for his birthday dinner!

That’s right, I didn’t take any pictures.  Had a lot of trouble remembering to use the camera on this trip.  It was pretty and delicious, I highly recommend using a lettuce leaf to serve ceviche like a lettuce taco.

After a few days of unsuccessful spear fishing and regular fishing out of a kayak, things really escalated quick when 3/5ths of the Hub Hollow gang joined us for a few days.  Like us, they were drawn to the beauty of the reef and quickly saw the delicious possibilities in it, leading to this revelatory moment.

IMG_2308

When JT came up with this lobster Kristi yelped something like, “oooh, that’s gonna kill Peter…”  While normally she’d be right, I hadn’t explored lobster foraging yet and was excited it was a possibility

After getting a few tips from JT and over my jealousy of his first catch, I headed out to look into the holes and overhangs where those little delicious crustaceans were apparently hiding.  After some failed attempts at getting a large lobster, I found a decent sized spiny guy and I was officially on the board.  Only problem was, due to the size of the ones we were bringing in, we knew we would have to put in some serious effort to make a meal out of it.

The next morning, our last full day in the Bahamas, I headed out with Jason, John, Tim and JT.  They were primarily focused on fish, which paid off, since Jason caught a decent looking Tilefish from the kayak using the milk conch as bait.

Decent catch.  I know, you see that there is a second fish int hat net, we'll get to it later

Decent catch by a patient man.  I know, you see that there is a second fish in that net, we’ll get to it later

As for me, I was singularly focused on lobster from the time we left the beach.  Because of that, I noticed what looked like a monster sticking out of a hole underneath the seaweed.

The nice thing about Caribbean lobster is that they are borderline blind and very stupid; they rely almost entirely on their extremely long spiny antenna to alert them of any danger in the area.  This one had it’s antenna stuck out perpendicular to its head, two feet in each direction of the hole.  So, while any contact with those antenna would cause it to shoot back into its hole, it could care less that I took my time floating in front of it getting my gear together and preparing.  From there, deep breath, dive down 6 feet, grab a handhold on the ridge, and take my best shot at the lobster with the spear.  I knew I had one chance to drive the spear far enough into the front hard shell (read: stab it in the face) to pin it down, so I made my move and… pandemonium.

1) That thing was absurdly strong and its attempts to swim away backwards bent the metal spear.  2) I am fidgety and awful under pressure.  I ended up not being able to spear and grab it in one breath which led to me struggling to get to the surface to breathe while keeping downward pressure on the four foot spear.  After spitting out my snorkel and swallowing too much water I yelled to Tim who eventually heard me, swam over and agreed to hold the spear (I asked him to grab the lobster).  To a snorkeled cry of “HOLY SH*T” from Tim, I pulled the big guy out of his hole and headed in.

It's important to note that beyond the lumpiness and lovehandles, I am enormous.  If you're judging the size of the lobster using me for perspective you are not going to appreciate how friggin' huge this thing was

It’s important to note that beyond the noticeable lumpiness and lovehandles, I am enormous.  If you’re judging the size of the lobster using me for perspective you are not going to appreciate how friggin’ huge this thing was

After a good swig of fresh water and some pictures, my blood thirst drove me back into the water with a lobster bag expecting to catch a few thousand more.  As it turned out, I only caught one other decently large one and the lobster bag turned out to be a complete crock since I could, and was, still scratched by the lobster through the mesh.

Once back on shore, I twisted the tails off and refrigerated them.  In a separate bowl (and fridge to avoid terrifying people) I saved the bodies and claws to dig around for meat in those later.

The two from the first day are on the left.  Gives some perspective on the size of the big guy

The two from the first day are on the left.  Gives some perspective on the size of the big guy

That's a large bowl you would serve salads in.  WHY WON'T YOU BELIEVE ME ABOUT HOW BIG THESE TWO WERE?!?!?

That’s a large bowl you would serve salads in.  WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME ABOUT HOW BIG THESE TWO WERE?!?!?

With the lobster lined up, let’s check in on the fish.  In addition to the Tilefish that Jason caught, JT was able to spear a fish as well (though I’m not sure what kind, I think we figured out it was a striped snapper of some sort).

IMG_2368

We left the cleaning of these to Harry, Big Peter’s caretaking partner.  He was impressively fast scaling and gutting them, and didn’t even act disgusted when I dug through the guts and pulled out a couple of the roe sacks for myself.

Even I didn't know if I wanted to go down this road, but figured they were worth a shot at least

Even I didn’t know if I wanted to go down this road, but figured they were worth a shot at least

I ended up trying to make a quicky salted roe dish, so I coated the roe sacks with salt and left them in a bowl in front of a sunny window for 8ish hours.  In other funky food news, I boiled the lobster bodies and picked around in them a bit.

The bodies were surprisingly different from Maine lobster bodies with a couple sizable chunks of meat, but the tamale that surrounded the meat had a far more assertive flavor.  Like fishy chicken liver mousse, which was odd.  There was also a lot more meat at the front of the head but it didn’t have much flavor.  On the flipside, the legs were much easier to eat since the meat was dense enough to hold together when cracked.  Yeah, got no pictures of any of that.

Here’s the lobster tails after a quick par boiling and split in half for the grill.

Didn't par boil these the second day when I bought some, which made the Bahamian equivalent of Joycie (Big Peter) roll his eyes and espouse the need to par boil.  So we did it this time around and he was right

Didn’t par boil these the second day when I bought some, which made the Bahamian equivalent of Joycie (Big Peter) roll his eyes and espouse the need to par boil.  So we did it this time around and he was right

Due to the amount of lobster and some chicken breasts we had marinating, the fish ended up being saved until following night’s dinner after Kristi, Janet and I would already be gone.  But I still got to eat that roe sack which had expunged more water than I expected in 8 short hours.

These were firm and dry instead of mushy and wet like when they first came out.  No, this isn't some kind of Whats Grosser than Gross joke, it's just one gross state to another

These were firm and dry instead of mealy and wet like when they first came out.  No, this isn’t some kind of Grosser than Gross joke, it’s just the metamorphosis from one gross state to another

After a quick rinse and patting dry, I floured these and fried them in a little olive oil.  About what I expected, salty and a little mealy in texture, but not as fishy as you would think since they were so fresh.  Jason ate one too.  Overall pretty meh.

The lobster tails came off the grill and were served with the chicken, roast vegetables, salad and beans & rice.

I got pretty good at making beans and rice while in the Bahamas.  Bouillon cubes are really the main secret, they make it better every time

I got pretty good at making beans and rice while in the Bahamas.  Bouillon cubes are really the main secret, they make it better every time.  That’s a quarter of the big lobster tail

The lobster was great and had the usual differences of Caribbean lobster vs. the Maine variety; chewier and not quite as sweet.  The par boiling definitely helped the chewy aspect, but in an odd twist the largest tail ended up being the most tender of any of them.  Hope that didn’t sound negative since they were very delicious and made for an awesome dinner on our last night.

I know this post was all over the place and it took two weeks to get it.  I was not into taking food fotos on this vacation for some reason.  Regardless, the trip was amazing, the house was awesome, and catching live lobsters while snorkeling is definitely another item crossed off the bucket list.  Thanks again John and Julie!!

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