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.

Mommy Ryan’s Birthday Dinner (feat. Whole Fish Baked in Salt)

Last week I asked for suggestions on what I could post about, preferably involving seafood.  Unfortunately, I only received one suggestion.  Even worse, it was from ADB villain Matt Bendle, this blog’s devils advocate who happens to occasionally voice what people are thinking.  His suggestion: “bake a fish in salt”.

I had seen this done before on Iron Chef and also ordered it at a couple restaurants.  The presentation is pretty cool, it was always delicious, and generally seemed like a decent suggestion.  Goddamn Bendle.  So, I decided to create a birthday dinner for Mommy Ryan with the salt baked fish as the centerpiece.

This is where Janet watches most meals that I cook. That look says, “I have no idea what is going to come out of that bag of groceries but count me out.”  She confuses every item that passes within a foot of her face for a nipple but can somehow tell that she should be scared when I unpack groceries

After an appointment with our pediatrician in Brookline Village, I traveled an extra mile or two down Harvard Ave. to A) get gender appropriate clothing for Janet at TJ Maxx and B) hit Wulf’s fish market.

I’d heard great things about Wulf’s but never been before.  They didn’t disappoint, and I walked out with a freshly cleaned two and a half bound striped bass for $20.

Fins and gills are removed, but scales stay on. Helps protect the meat from getting too salty tasting

Although this was a beautiful fish, I knew it didn’t have quite enough meat to feed all four people at the birthday dinner, especially since one of them was brother John and his superhuman appetite.  Had to serve an app of some sort.  Let’s get started by cooking some bacon.

Finally finished the block of bacon. It contributed to some great meals

Hadn’t done this before, but I thought the bacon could be used in the shrimp fritters I was planning as an app, so I drained the cubes and left the bacon grease in the pan. From there I started working on the base for the fritter batter.

Red onion is as important as any other ingredient in fritters

Fritters are great to mess around with.  They are mostly just cornmeal with a teaspoon of baking powder and some salt mixed with milk, egg, and whatever else you want to include.  Speaking of the eggs…

Needed the whites for the fish, so used the three yolks on the fritters. One beaten egg works just fine normally

The three yolks were beaten with the dry ingredients, a tablespoon of hot sauce and about a cup of water and milk.  From there, I added the cooked bacon cubes and a pound of chopped raw shrimp.

This general recipe works with any cheap shellfish. Small raw shrimp or bay scallops are great for making an inexpensive delicious appetizer

This got stirred together and dropped by the spoonful into the bacon grease pan with some additional vegetable oil added to it.

This should look very familiar if you’ve read my conch fritters post. The striper alone wasn’t quite enough to fill a post

Final product was about 20 fritters, best served with lemon and a little homemade spicy remoulade.

The remoulade was a huge upgrade over tartar sauce

These were a little better than the conch version, most likely due to using more shellfish in the recipe and the added flavor from the bacon.  You could tell they were good since Kristi made this plate for herself.

Janet chose to get hungry right as these were ready, so Kristi had to patiently wait for her daughter to eat before she could. Janet can be really self possessed sometimes

With everyone partially filled up on the cheese plate and fritters, it was time to start preparing the fish.  First up was mixing the three egg whites in with a little water and two pounds of sea salt until it had the consistency of wet sand.

Two pounds of sea salt at Costco is $3. They’re practically giving the stuff away these days

Half of the salt went down on a parchment lined baking sheet as a bed for the fish.  I was working off a recipe I found online that recommended fresh bay leaves as the primary flavoring.  While I was skeptical since I had only used bay leaves in boiling items, I gave it a shot and laid a couple on the salt.

I am so used to dried bay leaves that I am always surprised how strong and pleasant the fresh variety smells

The fish went directly onto the bay leaves and I filled the body cavity with slices of lemon.

Lemons are a key part of any roasted fish dish

Then another layer of bay leaves before the salt crust.

Probably an unnecessary photo, but I had it so it goes in

I then used the remainder of the salt mixture to encase the body of the fish completely, leaving the tail and head exposed.

John was shaking his head at this point and making it clear that he didn’t expect this to work. It’s like Tim sent him with instructions or something

The fish headed into a 375F oven and while that cooked, I prepared the side dishes: Brussels sprouts and rice.  The Brussels were seared simply in olive oil and finished with a splash of lemon juice, salt and pepper.  The rice cooked in tomato juice and chicken broth and were tossed with roasted garlic and olive oil at the end.

Kristi and I love Brussels sprouts, though we’ve never strayed far from this simple and always pleasing method of cooking them

After 25 minutes in the oven, the fish was ready to come out.

Doesn’t look too different, but the smell was wonderful

To get the fish out of the salt, you whack the shell a few times with a wooden spoon and remove the hardened chunks of salt.

I didn’t expect all of the steam the escaped when the salt was cracked.  I never really thought it through enough to realize that the secret of this dish is the fish steaming in it’s own juices so that it stays moist and flavorful

After removing a few large chunks of salt, the fish is freed from the mold and ready to be transferred to a separate platter.

Kristi picked the platter, she has officially become the funniest character on this blog

And at that point… I was a little confused what to do next.  The skin was a little gummy and still had scales so it was obviously inedible.  I was surprised to find that it peeled away easily and in one piece.

I was excited at this point, but then realized I once again had no idea what to do next

The meat under the skin was tender, light, and flaky, not what I usually expect from striped bass.  Because it was so tender, there was no way to remove the whole fillets, so instead I used tongs to pull the meat away from the bones.  Eventually, I ended up with this:

I think this is actually a bit before I finished pulling. It was around a pound and a quarter of meat total

And this:

The lemons, skin, bones, and belly fat. Surprisingly, I didn’t turn this into pancakes or something

And that:

Picked pretty clean, except for one small morsel…

I couldn’t do this meal without indulging my love for odd foods a little bit.  In general, I like fish heads; I order yellowfin collar whenever I see it on a menu, can’t wait to have grouper cheeks again on my next trip to the Everglades, and have a begged my buddy John to save me the head of the next tuna he catches.  I usually ignore the eyeball, but I have heard good things.  Soooooo…

I waited till John, Mommy, and Kristi had all taken their food and headed to the dining room, telling them I would be at the table, “in just a second”

Eyeballs are a pretty simple item to eat; throw it in your mouth, suck out the contents, and pull the hard exterior out of your mouth.  I had no idea what to expect, but like many other odd items it sounds much grosser than it is.  It was just a little bit of gelatin with a mild fish flavor and then you pull out the empty shell.

I’d do this again

Enough of all that, back to the main event.

Loved the sweet and garlicky rice

The fish was wonderful.  It was moist, tender and had taken in all of the flavors from the lemons and bay leaf without becoming overly salty from the crust.  The most surprising thing was how enjoyable the flavors added by the bay leaves was.  I can’t describe it well, but they gave the fish a hint of welcomed herb flavor and a little bitterness.  Went well with the lemon.  The sweet and garlicky rice and the slightly al dente Brussels sprouts combined with the fish made for a great meal.

Next week I will share some of my recent baking exploits.  Have a great July 4th everyone.

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.