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.

Momere’s Baked Beans

In addition to her grandparents, Janet is blessed with having two great grandmothers, Alice and Janet (the source of her name), as well as a great aunt through marriage, Joyce.  What’s really amazing is that she also has a great-great grandmother, Simone.  Now, in the Ryan family we called our grandparents Grandma and Grandpa, but things are done a little differently in Kristi’s family.  Janet is Grandma Net, Alice is Grandma Ali, Joyce is Joycie, and Simone is Momere (pronounced “Mommer” in the VT translation of French).  Hence the name of the post.

Momere is 98 years old and still lives on her own down the street from Net and Kristi’s parents.  She mostly wears clothes that she made herself, has a husky laugh that makes me feel like I am pretty funny, and keeps her house at a balmy 80 degrees using a wood burning stove in the winter.  I’ve had a few queasy mornings there after after the family Christmas parties.

Joycie and Momere chillin' at one of the summer parties. Note the baggo (or "cornhole" in Ryan terms) game going on in the background. Thank god it's become the lawn game of choice at family events since I almost killed three bystanders the last time I attempted to play horseshoes

In the time I’ve known Kristi, Momere’s eyesight hasn’t been great which has limited her ability to cook, but everyone in the family talks often about how good her cooking is.  Kristi has told me on multiple occasions about how amazing her baked beans are and since I’ve never cooked baked beans myself, I decided recently that I wanted to get my hands on her recipe.  The only obstacle was that unlike my need to write down recipes since I only cook things once or twice, Momere has an arsenal of dishes that she’s cooked hundreds of times over nine decades.  So, the recipes are entirely in her head and she probably hasn’t had to measure out the proportions for the past 20-30 years.

Janet loved hanging with Momere. And, no, she wasn't DJ'ing, that's a new hearing aid which seems to work much better than previous ones

At Casey and Mark’s wedding a few week’s ago, Aunt Tiffany and I asked Momere to share her recipe for baked beans.  As she said, the proportions are all to taste, but the key ingredients for her recipe were soldier or navy beans (“careful to pick out any rocks or bad beans”), salt pork (“always look for the pieces with the least fat and most meat”), maple syrup, white sugar, and mustard.  She also gave specific instructions on cooking time (“at least 6 hours at 275”) and a good way to test whether the beans are ready (“they are done when you blow on them and the skin comes off”).

With that information and a little online research, I was ready to get started by picking through, rinsing and soaking a pound of navy beans.

Couldn't find soldier beans, but navy beans were given as a second option. I am usually lazy with beans and use the canned version but this effort was worth an exception

After an overnight soak, I had this underwhelming result.

I think I expected them to quadruple in size overnight or something, but they only got a little bigger

I strained and rinsed the beans again then reserved them while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.  Next up was the salt pork which Kristi picked up for me at the grocery store.

Kristi didn't let Momere down and got a pretty meaty piece. It helped that I reiterated that point unnecessarily about a thousand times before she left for the store. I'm lucky to be married folks, lucky to be married.

I hadn’t cooked with salt pork much previously aside from attempting to use it a couple years ago after being introduced to it at Ryan Thanksgiving.  My Aunt Jeannie uses slices of salt pork draped on top of the turkey to flavor the bird and keep it moist, but I mostly tried and failed to use it in breakfast preparations.  It’s really salty stuff, so after cutting off about a third of the slab to use, I rinsed it thoroughly to remove excess salt, then transferred to the cutting board to trim the rind off.

I think the rind is skin, but not sure about that. Also, salt pork is made with fatback, so even a meaty piece still has a lot of fat

Most recipes called for 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of salt pork or bacon per pound of dried beans, but since I like my beans salty and porky I erred on the high end and used a little under a half pound, which I cubed into small pieces.

I knew the fatty pieces would almost completely disappear during cooking leaving only delicious flavor. Oh, and fat.

Next step was giving a yellow onion a medium dice and measuring out some mustard.  As I researched online, most recipes called for ground mustard, but I really got the sense from Momere that she meant prepared mustard when she gave the recipe.  So, I went with my ample gut, and decided to go with Grey Poupon as a semi-homage to Momere’s French-Canadian heritage.

Although I was planning on a quarter cup, I was totally guessing since I had no idea what the prepared equivalent of 2 tablespoons of ground mustard would be. But there was a third of a cup left in the bottle, so that's what I went with.

To make sure there wouldn’t be clumps of individual ingredients and everything would be evenly dispersed, I decided to combine ingredients prior to adding the beans.  Starting with whisking together the mustard with the maple syrup and a little water.

Action shots!!!! I was really enjoying myself more than made sense at this point

Per Momere’s recommendation, I began taste testing the liquid since it was key to the success of the beans.  I started with a half cup of maple syrup and a couple tablespoons of white sugar but added more of both until it got to the sweetness level I was hoping for.  It ended up at around 3/4 cup of maple syrup and 1/4 cup of sugar which was a little sweeter than I wanted, but it would be diluted by adding a few cups of water before cooking.

Once the flavor was right, I added the salt pork, onions and a couple tablespoons of minced garlic.

Worst kept secret on the ADB blog: I keep a jar of store-bought minced garlic in the fridge for when I am out of fresh garlic or feeling lazy. Both were the case on this day

Stirred in the beans, about 2 1/2 cups of water, a couple tablespoons of fresh ground pepper and then the whole bowl went into the smaller cousin of my favorite Le Creuset.

This was looking lighter in color than I expected but I figured the beans and sugar would darken during cooking. Also, sometimes when I post pictures of this Le Creuset in use I feel like I am cheating on my main squeeze, Big Yellow

The lid went on, and this headed into the 275F oven for 6 hours per Momere’s instructions.  While that cooks, here are some interesting Momere facts:

– She has 27 great grandchildren and 15 great-great grandchildren.  Blows my freaking mind.  When I was young I remember showing friends the picture of my oldest brother John as a baby with our father, grandfather, and great grandfather shortly before he passed away.  I thought it was amazing that my brother actually met his great grandfather.
– When Momere was 48 her husband passed away and she needed to find employment to support herself.  In a show of incredible determination, she put herself through nursing school and worked for an additional 30+ years before retiring at the age of 80.  By contrast, I left my relatively cushy job to go back to school when I was 29 in the hopes of finding an even cushier job.  If the previous sentence was shown to a group of seniors along with a picture of me eating a sandwich, there would be universal head shaking and a resounding chorus of, “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
– After Momere’s husband passed away, it was just her sister, Marcienne who was also recently widowed, in the house with her.  Momere Marcienne (as she was called by the family) and Momere were married to brothers and had brought up their two families in the same house.  They lived about 6 houses away from Kristi’s family so Momere Marcienne and Momere often took care of Kristi and her twin Kate when they were babies and occasionally after school while their parents were at work.  They each had their own twin, and while I love Momere,  I gotta side with Momere Marcienne since she was on Team Kristi.

Momere Marcienne is on the left, Momere is on the right. While my head is exploding with comments on my wife as well as my brother and sisters in-law in this picture, let's keep this a nice blog about Momere and her awesome baked beans, okay?

Back to the cooking.  After about four and a half hours in the oven, I pulled the beans out to check if they needed a stir, which they did.

The top layer was in danger of drying out but you can see the ample cooking liquid below bubbling through in spots

The change in color and rich aroma were very encouraging, and stirring the beans up helped avoid the top layer getting too dry and dispersed the liquid throughout the beans.  After another hour and a half I pulled the beans and had my first taste.  The flavor was great, exactly what I was hoping for, but the big test was Kristi.  I couldn’t have been happier than when she ate the first forkful, then the rest of the small bowl I’d prepared, and said the flavor was right on.

Since the beans were still slightly firmer than I wanted them and there was a good amount of excess liquid, I removed the lid and put the beans back in the oven for another 40 minutes at 325F.  Which got me here:

You know that looks freaking delicious, and the smell matched

The flavors came together very well and each bite had a little salty pork flavor, a little maple, and some tartness from the Dijon mustard.  Just the right level of sweetness too, not the over-the-top sugary sweetness of Bush’s Maple Cured Bacon Beans.  They had a very rich flavor, but not a heavy richness, perfect with a couple sausages or hot dogs.

I OD'ed on these Al Fresco chicken sausages a few years ago and am just now reintroducing them to our meals. They were a good compliment to the beans, as was the yellow horseradish mustard from some Buffalo place that Buschy left in my fridge

The beans weren’t quite as soft as the canned variety, but I wouldn’t say that made them any less enjoyable, just clear that you weren’t eating canned baked beans.  I’d likely do a little more lid-on cooking time and a little more water in the future if I was hoping for softer beans.  I’ll also listen to Momere and cook them until the skin falls off when I blow on them (which it didn’t on mine).

Anyhoo, they were really good.  The next step is to attempt making these the next time I visit VT and see if Momere has any suggestions or changes.  I am already feeling a little nervous about that.  Here’s a poor attempt at a recipe.

Pete’s version of Momere’s Baked Beans

1 lb dried navy beans (rinsed and soaked overnight)
1/3 lb salt pork (rinsed and cubed) – 1/2 lb for saltier/meatier beans
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup white sugar
3 & 1/2 cups of water
1 medium yellow onion (diced)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275F.  Whisk together mustard, maple syrup, water, and sugar until thoroughly blended.  Stir in beans, pork, onions, garlic, and pepper.  Place in medium sized pot with heavy lid and place in oven for 6 hours (7 hours for softer beans), stirring once approximately halfway through cooking.  Increase oven temperature to 325F, remove lid, stir once, and cook an addition 30-45 minutes or until excess liquid has cooked off.  Remove beans from oven and they are ready to serve.

Weird Crap I Cook: Yellowfin Tuna Collar (Hamachi Kama)

Generally I enjoy all types of seafood and have loved sushi since I was first introduced to it when I was ten years old.  Tuna, in all varieties, has always been my favorite raw fish and I would guess I consumed 10 pounds of freshly caught raw Yellowfin tuna at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (our honeymoon, but I am name dropping) in a 5 day period.  That trip got me addicted to raw tuna.

Oddly, I am not a fan of cooked tuna and won’t order it at most restaurants unless I am sure it will come out rare.  The only exception is tuna collar which I was introduced to by a Bizarre Foods episode a few years ago.  I first tried it at Jaes Grill in Brookline (now defunct) and found it to be very tasty and moist despite being completely cooked through.  Ever since I have ordered it whenever I see it on a menu.

RIP Jae's. Your awful signage didn't give proper credit to your enjoyable pan-Asian cuisine and surprisingly decent sushi

To continue this extremely long lead-in, for years I have been jealous of my buddy John and his tuna fishing trips with his brother in-law Frank.  Last year Liz (John’s wife) sent me a picture of the 130+ lb Bigeye tuna they caught and had me drooling at the huge slabs of meat they were pulling off.  I also noted that the fish head was being disposed of which is what 99% of fishermen would do (and what the Ryans did on our fishing trip).  Since I knew the collar was on there somewhere, and that I needed blog material, I asked him to save me the head of the next big tuna they got.

Lots of background.  Anyhoo, I nearly pooped my pants when I saw this text from John a week ago, “Got you a tuna head dawg.  From a 45lb Yellowfin.”  Well then.

Best picture message I have ever received. Big thanks to Frank Coulson, Mike Kirwan, Johnny, and Colman Currie (not pictured) for sharing their catch

When they butchered the Yellowfin, the head was wrapped in a few trash bags and placed in the freezer awaiting a visit from the Ryans.

Liz, Griff, Janet, Kristi. Griff is about 8 months older than Janet but I am pretty sure he was hitting on her

After hanging out at Liz’s (John’s wife) family house on Tuesday and Wednesday, including some sampling of the fresh Yellowfin, the frozen head came back to the Ryan LBI house.  Where it sat in the fridge ominously for a few days.

From my hogs head experience, I knew this would take around 3 days to fully thaw. Which explains the surrounding clams and leftover chowder from the weekend clamming festivities

I ended up waiting until Sunday to make an attempt at this.  My main problem was the complete lack of online support on how to butcher a tuna head and remove the collar.  Nothing.  As I sat on the couch exhausted from my friend Lenny’s bachelor party, I started trying to rationalize throwing out the head, but decided to give it a shot based on the few pictures of butchered collar I had seen online.

This move to the sink might not look like it, but it was a significant step

After cleaning up some tuna head leakage in the fridge, getting my knives ready, and setting up the counter with some cardboard for coverage, I removed the bags (4 of them to be exact).

No real way to give size perspective here. My guess is it was heavier than Janet and less heavy than the hogs head. I didn't enjoy that framing at all and will avoid dragging Janet's name into comparisons like that in the future

The collar is the area between the gill slit and the back edge of the skull (where the head was cut from the main body of the fish).  I think.  I don’t have any action shots in this post since I was supposed to be making pasta with clam sauce for Mommy Ryan and Kristi Ryan.  I advised them both to not enter the kitchen since I was, “doing some other stuff too”.

As I probed around the head, I saw that what I thought was the collar needed to be carefully cut away from the gills and hacked away from the top of the skull and the bottom as well.  I also observed that most of a Yellowfin tuna’s organs are located inside the skull.  After some careful trimming, dulling of my knives cutting through bones, and near finger losses, I came away with this:

Was able to remove both collars in one piece. I don't think that was an accomplishment, just the easiest way to do it

Leaving just the tip of the head in the sink.

Had two angles on this shot, but this one is nicer to look at. I considered trying to find a way to eat the eyes but realized I didn't truly enjoy eating eyes last time and there was other gross stuff to enjoy

First step was making a cut through the bone on the bottom side of the collar to separate it into two pieces.

The cardboard was essential. I should have tarped the walls as well since the kitchen was starting to look like a crime scene by this point

Removing the fins was very difficult and I did a job that would make any sushi chef cry in agony.  The first collar was removed mostly by pulling which tore some of the meat away; the second side was a lot of big swings with a heavily dulled knife at that point.  Then there was a ton of careful trimming of any bloody spots, areas close to the gills, and a rinse to remove what looked like small scales.  Eventually, I ended up with a couple poorly butchered Yellowfin tuna collars.

I wish I could produce something that looks well butchered just once in my life, but since I cook everything adventurous exactly once, I am never proficient enough to make it look nice

As I mentioned previously, there were indeed a few interesting organs hiding inside the head and neck.  I threw away the gullet and some stomach fat, but rinsed and kept the two organs that were easiest to recognize: the liver and heart.

The liver was easily recognizable, but I fell back on recollection of Bizarre Foods to recognize the heart

At this point I stepped away and reassessed.  I honestly didn’t think I would end up with anything edible, so I had to decide on the fly how I would cook everything.  The grill seemed like a logical choice, and after starting it I searched the cabinets and fridge.  I ended up mixing together a marinade/basting liquid of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, and a lot of brown sugar.

The brown sugar was a prominent part of a recipe for whole roasted Bluefin tuna head and sounded like an excellent idea. I took note of that whole concept for a future post

After the grill had heated up for ten minutes or so, the collars and organs went on.

The organs look pretty innocuous, but for some reason the collar looks disgusting in the early grill pictures

I left the gas grill on high and shut the lid for 5 minutes before flipping the liver and heart while the collars remained skin down with the lid open.

I brushed the leftover marinade on the collars a couple times during the cooking

After a few more minutes I pulled the organs off and flipped the collars.

These were dark to begin with, but charred sugars and soy sauce gave a dark on darker coloring contrast

About the crispiness and char I was hoping for. I wasn't planning to eat the skin or anything. That would be, you know, gross

While the collars cooked some more, I headed inside to sample the heart and liver.  At which point I discovered that my camera is now permanently in a Janet picture taking-friendly mode that does not take food detail shots well.

Here's the liver. It resembled every other cooked liver I have seen

Annnnnd the heart. This is about as rare as I wanted it and looked a lot like beef

The liver tasted like liver.  Liver with a mild fish flavor.  Not quite as strong as chicken/beef/pork liver but you could definitely tell what it was.  I was good with that after one bite.  The heart on the other hand was awesome.  Tasted like a great piece of rare tuna with the texture/density of a beef steak and a little bit of mineral flavor.  I would definitely eat that again, possibly raw if the tuna hadn’t been frozen.  Back to the collars.

The marinade gave the meat a great color. Wish the grill marks were a bit more pronounced, though

From my few experiences, there is no nice way to serve tuna collar which is likely a contributing factor to why it isn’t on more menus.  Anyone interested in eating it needs to pick pieces of meat off the bone using chopsticks, and there is no easy way to break it up into individual servings.

Although it looks like the first bite, it was actually the second. Had to clarify that since my hands have never looked this nice and Kristi was surprisingly game to try the collar

The collars were incredible.  This has less to do with my skills than the freshness and quality of the catch, but it was seriously delicious.  I generally think fully cooked tuna is fishier than the rare variety, but that wasn’t the case with the collar meat.  It’s very tender like the meat near the salmon skin, but not as fishy tasting and distinctly tuna.  My best impartial witness for claims like this is Kristi since she is not overly adventurous and hates fishy tasting/smelling seafood.  After one bite, she dove in, as did my mother, and it quickly became an appetizer feeding frenzy.

Last action shot I could pause for. It was actually an enjoyable part of the experience to pick around and look for a nice pocket of meat

The sweet and charred flavors from the marinade added heavily to the enjoyment and I would definitely use a similar marinade if I ever made this again.  After a few more bites, I left the dish for a short time to finish my pasta with clam sauce and returned to find this:

There were a few pieces of meat we missed, but I'll give this clean plate club status. Call it in Ma Dowley!

Final note to the post is that I really appreciated the tuna head from Hard Four crew and hope that they will think of me after future catches.  I will happily take any future tuna heads and do this again.  Same goes to any other readers who go tuna fishing, just give me a little notice and I will be there.  It’s a really, really good piece of meat.

No ideas for next week, will try to think of something.