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.

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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.

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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).

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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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Foraging for Food: Yellowfin Tuna

Labor Day weekend brought a trip to LBI for a few days of relaxation, friends, family, and good eating.  It also brought a generous invitation from my buddy John and his brother-in-law Frank to join them for some deep sea fishing on Saturday.  This one is gonna get a little wordy on the front end and a little visually graphic on the back end, just like an old fashioned orgy at Gore Vidal’s house.  That joke has no place on this blog but, as long as we’re breaking the fourth wall, this is going to be a MONSTER post.

I accepted the invitation almost immediately, then spent the following days nervous about whether I would end up being yet another visitor on the boat that vomits for 15 hours straight.  John dealt with a whole lotta anxious questions about how the day would unfold.

That look says, “I don’t understand what you are talking about, but I can already tell from the tone of your voice that I’m not going to like what you do in our kitchen when you get home.”

You might remember the Hard Four crew from last year when they saved me the head and collar from a 45 pound yellowfin.  Some of the stories from the boat, like the tournament last summer where they landed over 300 pounds of Bigeye tuna, are like food Cialis for me.  My excitement to see it all firsthand greatly outweighed the sea sickness fears.

The day started at 3:40 in the morning after a delirious night of sleep due to some questionable raw oysters.  The crew for the day was Frank, John, Colman (photographer of the tuna shot from last year), Captain Mike (or “Zoo”), Frank’s father-in-law Big Rich, and Whitney, Frank’s brother-in-law.  Solid crew.  Once on the boat,  all of us except Zoo passed out for the 3+ hour trip to Hudson Canyon, some (including myself) aided by a solid dose of Dramamine.

Once we arrived at the fishing grounds, we got out of the PFDs and waterproof suits we wore for the wet ride out and got ready to do some fishing.  Generally I just tried to stay out of the way at this point since I had no idea how anything worked.  After Frank, John, Colman, and Zoo moved around for 10-15 minutes we had eight lines spread out along the two outriggers and a couple teaser lines in the water.  Lots of high-fiving and general excitement for the day of fishing ensued.

Johnny and Me.  This was taken later in the day, but that was a lot of words in a row and a lot more to come.  Here’s a little thing: I was borderline unable to pee on the boat due to an inability to keep my balance and general stage fright.  I am still disappointed in myself for this

Within 10 minutes of getting the lines out, the distinct sound of line flying out of a reel filled our ears and Colman dropped the rod into his fighting belt.  We let the line run out for 20-30 seconds to see if any other fish in the school bit, but eventually pulled all other lines in to let Colman reel in the fish.

In apparently typical fashion, Colman told us that the fish on the line “felt small” and was “likely a skipjack”.  Eventually what looked like a keg with yellow tips came up off the port side, Frank gaffed it right behind the gills, and we were officially on the board.  Let’s just say that the feeling for me was like seeing Christie Brinkley in Vacation for the first time when I was 9.

A beauty of a Yellowfin.  Doesn’t do the size any justice but that was a large fish box.  Look at me using proper angling terms!

And then…. not much.  We had an awesome day of catching up with friends new and old, eating a ton of homemade deli sandwiches, listening to music and waiting for the lines to run out.  But, we didn’t see much action in the following 4-5 hours and headed back with just that one beautiful fish that made it all worthwhile.

I don’t think I had any understanding of how large the yellowfin was until we returned to LBI, I picked it up, and struggled mightily with its weight.

I think this picture was taken while I was taking a breath or something.  I was incredibly strained the whole time I held the fish and look way too relaxed in this foto

The yellowfin weighed over 60 pounds and generally looked like the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.  I had no business holding it since I had no part in reeling it in, but I still did everything short of a Tawny Kitaen on the hood of a Jaguar photo shoot with that fish.

Johnny on the left, Frank in the center.  They may never get how much this trip meant to me, and I may never understand why it meant so much to me.  I just love having a part in getting my own food, especially when it’s delicious.  Also, I have a double chin all the way up to my ears.  That can’t be healthy, right?

After a few more rounds of photo shoots with various combinations of people, Zoo got started cutting the loins out of the fish.  It was pretty impressive to watch and a reminder of what a perfect food tuna is with how much of it is edible.

It was extremely impressive how quickly Zoo took this thing apart.  Zoo was also a good reminder that I wish I had better nicknames.  He earned his due to some child modeling when he was younger and the 2000 Ben Stiller film Zoolander, but it’s also a good fishing captain nickname

The size of the slabs of meat coming off had me salivating, but of course I was also pretty excited for the stuff that was leftover.

Ridiculous looking meat coming off that fish

Zoo was nice enough to leave the organs all intact on the tuna since they are mostly contained within the area inside the collar.  I asked around to make sure no one else was hoping to take home the body.  Much to my surprise there wasn’t a ton of interest, so, lucky me.

That’s the stomach hanging out of the head area.  It’s never good when you are excited for a food that dogs sniff at then slowly back away from without sampling

After wrapping the body in a few layers of trash bags with the help of Big Rich, I gave the requisite hugs and handshakes all around, grabbed a share of the loin meat, and headed to the car.  The body rode in the front with Kristi (she was extremely excited about this) while Janet rode in the back with her fishy smelling father.

Once back at our Beach Haven house, I took a quick shower then brought the tuna into the kitchen.

Big Rich helped me avoid disaster the first time I bagged this and forgot that the tuna’s razor sharp teeth would make short work of a trashbag. Fell right out onto the dock and almost into the water when I confidently lifted the bag to leave. Definitely one of the stupider moments in a long line of stupid moments on this blog

After laying down newspaper on the counter topped with plastic cutting boards and breaking out a cleaver and rubber mallet, I called in Marshall and Michael (at our house for the night) to take a look.  While they mobilized I pulled the body out of the bag and the scene they walked in on can only be described as crime scene-esque.

Didn’t take into account how much blood would be in the bag. Can’t beat the joke Marshall made when he showed me the photo and simply said, “Peter cooking”

First step was to remove all of the meat from between the ribs, the backstrap, and the belly strip and chop them all up to make a tuna tartare.  Then, I planned to separate the spine from the head and remove the majority of the organs to either throw away with the bones/tail or store them overnight in the fridge with the head.

There was a remarkable amount of tender delicious meat hiding in the nooks and crannies of the body.

From my experience salt baking fish, I’ve discovered that the meat between the ribs is often some of the best but the biggest pain to collect.  Most of the rib meat was easy to scoop out and the back/belly strips came off in long pieces.  Just awesome

After 10 minutes of mining I had over a pound of perfect looking meat.  I chopped the tuna coarsely and mixed it in a bowl with toasted sesame oil, siracha, ginger, salt, and a diced homemade pickle that was part of a batch we brought down from Boston.  The bowl headed into the fridge to cool down (the tuna was still warm, yikes) and for the the flavors to come together a bit.

While that rested, I got to work on mining the organs from the head.

Thanks to Marsh for the gigantic Mount Gay and tonic that kept me company through this process.  This shot is important to make clear that I am not insane for my love of tuna heads. Look at all the meat on that collar!

After removing the stomach Mooman insisted on emptying its contents and found what looked like a pound of whole squid.  Not edible since it had been sitting in stomach acid, but pretty crazy to see.  Threw away all that and the other unidentifiable organs but gave the heart and liver a thorough cleaning and bagged them for revisiting the following day.

The liver was a lot firmer than any other liver I had handled before, as was the heart.  Both are quite good when marinated and grilled, though I recognize I am going to have to sell them a hell of a lot better than that to get my friends to eat them after seeing this post

After wrapping up the head and getting everything in the fridge I was ready to serve the tartare.  Went with the simple route of serving with tortilla chips though I think it would have been even better with those addictive black rice crackers they have at Whole Foods.

This was a good-sized ceramic bowl and it represented about half of the tartare.  Lot of meat on that body. It didn’t stand a chance though, the six of us took the whole pile down within fifteen minutes.  Not the best fotos in this post but our LBI house has the lighting of a morgue in a horror film

The tartare was awesome with the ginger, hot sauce, sesame oil, and pickle adding good contrasting but not overwhelming flavor to the buttery, rich tuna meat.  It was so good.

With another cocktail on the deck we all headed to bed and I looked forward to dealing with the remainder of the butchery the following day.  Using a combination of the cleaver and a rubber mallet, I was planning to remove the collar from the head (without losing any fingers), then remove the gills from inside the head.  This post is abysmally long at this point, so I will cut to late in the grisly carnage.

Knew this was going to get messy due to the amount of blood in the gills so I lined the counter with pizza boxes this time around.  This looks awful but it barely competes for top ten worst fotos on this blog and there is at least some positive stuff going on here

The mallet and cleaver were so crucial as a pair this time around.  Instead of having to take big inaccurate hacks to get through tough spots, you can place the cleaver and then hammer it through.  Much better for my poor level of hand-eye coordination.

I disposed of the gills before rinsing the head and collars in the sink and separating the collar pieces along the jaw line.  Which yielded this:

So much friggin’ meat on those collars, like the tomahawk ribeye of the tuna.  One of the best grilling pieces of fish I have ever come across

The loins run from the nose to the tail, and unlike the tail that is filled with sinew and tendons, the head meat is delicious and tender.  Can’t wait to roast this whole thing

And thats it.  Future weeks will detail the meals I created with all of this meat.  They will also be much shorter posts.

Thanks again to Frank and John and the whole Hard Four crew for an experience that has had me glowing and stuffed ever since.  Just an incredible weekend.

Definitely more to come on all of this.