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.


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.


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).


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!!

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.

Conch Fritters

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.

I had my face and both hands pressed against the window as we passed gator after gator on the drive. I am pretty sure I wasn't spoofing

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.

Beyond the awesome menu, we knew we'd found the right place when we saw a line of locals and the complete lack of cheesy decorations that the other restaurants showcased. Just picnic tables and food

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.

With all the Rolling Rock gear I still have and use from my time working for them, I figured I would have my first Rock in 8 years. It was as god awful as I remember it being

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 conch served with tartar sauce. You can kind of see the pink area that is the outer seal that keeps the conch in it's shell until the shell is cracked

The grouper cheeks served with remoulade. Disregard the squirt of mustard on the side of the plate that I was hoping would be the same as the mustard sauce served with stone crab, but was just generic Frenchs

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.

Does that look like too much flour and corn meal for a half pound of conch? Exactly. I was totally guessing on the proportions and this didn't look at all out of whack

Threw in an egg, milk, salt, and half a diced red onion.

Pretty straightforward hush puppy batter. This came together nicely with a whisk

With that ready to go, I pulled the conch out of the fridge to cut it up and add to the batter.

That's some weird looking food, but all shellfish is really

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.

Again, the proportions look pretty good

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.

Good composition and lighting on this shot, Tim. Were you planning on using it for a moody film noir companion piece or actually helping me with my food blog? Jerk

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 love cooking with red onion in stuff like this. Good flavor, less likely to completely lose its consistency, and it looks nice

I was a lot better at judging when these were golden brown than I was with the fish cakes.

I like frying in other people's homes, but not mine. I prefer that my clothes and jackets don't smell like I left them at a dim sum restaurant

We kept the early batches warm in the oven while everything cooked and eventually ended up with quite a large bowl full of fritters.

Thats a bowl full of fried happiness

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.

You can see the conch/dough balance. Hungry

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.