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.

Foraging for Food: Mackerel

You know it’s been awhile since you posted when it’s mid-December and the start of your post is “Over Thanksgiving…”.  Sorry ’bout that, Papers/presentations/exams/parties got in the way.  Hopefully I can get back on track and make some good meals over the next few weeks.

Over Thanksgiving, the Ryan bros and Kristi headed down to Naples to visit Ma Ryan.  Once we all arrived Thursday AM the process of eating way too much began, starting with a midday Thanksgiving buffet at the Ritz.  But, we didn’t want to miss out on Thanksgiving leftovers so we made a turkey and fixins anyway.

Tim and I put together our “stuffing of the gods” which we started making 5 years ago thanks to some creativity by Tim.  Dry white bread, onions, celery, garlic, lots of sage, and Jimmy Dean sausage.  It could also be called “stuffing of the borderline obese,” but our name helps us feel a little better about ourselves.

Mmmm, stuffing of the gods. The ones that eat pork at least

Well, if you thought that was over the top, you’re not going to feel much better once you see the way we sent our turkey into the oven.

Mom's kitchen lighting is a whole lot better than our Philly apartment's

We learned this one from Aunt Jeannie who cooks her turkey with thin cut slices of salt pork laying on top.  The salt pork, or bacon in our case, keeps the skin moist and gives the pan gravy a smoky flavor.  The key is removing it halfway through the cooking process so that the skin gets crispy without drying out.  Oh, and eating it after you remove it.  We also added a new twist this year:

A little sneaky sage with every slice of bacon

Ryan’s love sage and Kristi is learning to love it.  Also, note the full cavity of stuffing which I successfully accomplished this year without punching my hand out the other side.  It came out of the oven a few hours later while I was in the process of getting ready for our Ritz trip.  The resulting photo was posted by Tim on NYT.com.

My emotions associated with this are far closer to pride than embarrassment

Nothing says Thanksgiving like mustaches, undershirts and white boxer briefs!  A short three hours later I was more full than I have ever been before and it was only 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  That buffet completely knocked us out of commission and we barely touched the turkey until much later in the vacation.

John ate an absurd amount at the buffet. At 6:30, when Tim and I were still breathing in a labored manner from overeating, we finally wondered where John had disappeared to. That query led to us discovering him fast asleep on an ottoman where he had been for over an hour, still in his Ritzin' outfit

Which brings us to the title of this post.  The day after Thanksgiving, my mom arranged for a family fishing boat charter.  According to our captains, the plan was to troll for Spanish Mackerel and Kingfish and then bottom fish for Grouper.  I was very excited since I love catching or finding blah blah blah blah blah blah.  No need to repeat that statement for the 50th time on this blog.

Mommy and Tim cattily critiquing the multi-million dollar waterfront properties on the way out to sea. Stephen Spielberg's massive house, that he has probably only been to once or twice, was a highlight

Once we got out of the channel and into the gulf, Captain Al (my guess is his nickname is “Big Al”) secured two rods and put two trolling lines out.  Which is when the anxious staring began.  What you don’t realize until you actually see a fish on the line is that it is completely unmistakable, so I was jumping up every time a line twitched slightly.  After I reeled in a small mackerel that fell off the hook, Tim jumped for the next fish on the line which was significantly bigger.

Cameras don't lie the way your eyes can in the moment. That little silver shimmer looked like Tim was reeling in a trash can at the time

Tim’s a big guy, but it was definitely a battle for him.  The fish were too small to justify a chair, so it was just a lot of pulling, reeling, and then the fish taking some line out.  Eventually he got it close to the boat.

Things going through my mind: "Is that a tuna? I bet its a tuna", "How come Tim gets to reel in the big one? Stupid jerk, I'll show him" and "Should I ask if there is anything gross on the fish that I can eat raw?"

Big Al moved quicker, and with more precision, than I thought possible and hooked the kingfish to bring it on board.  To say that there was a lot of adrenaline and jubilation aboard the boat is an understatement.

Thats a fish to be proud of Tim. Jerk

With Tim’s 30″ kingfish kicking off the trip, and this post getting way too long, lets hit on everybody’s big catch of the day.

Oh, thats an adorable Spanish Mackerel, John! Maybe we can salt it and use it as a pizza topping if you catch a few more! (oh, and thats Big Al)

She throws a baseball better than me, runs faster than me (despite two knee reconstructions), knows more about hunting than me, and now catches bigger fish than me. Cuz shes my wahf... ... ... and thats mah life

To get revenge on Kristi for emasculating me by constantly outdoing me, I like to grow the most masculine mustaches known to man each November

Mommy Ryan CRUSHED us in the grouper fishing portion of the trip by catching the largest grouper by far. However, the fish came up about an inch short of the limit, which was a big bummer. How 'bout Kristi striking a pose like she's modeling high heels in the background?!?!?

The photo order isn’t entirely accurate.  I actually caught my mackerel late in the trip.  Previously, I had only caught a bunch of sand perch and a decent sized bonito tuna.  Although the tuna was a decent fight, they are apparently pretty gross to eat since all of the meat is similar to the bloodline on a regular tuna.  So, basically, I was being a brat and insisted on reeling in the fish we trawled for late in the trip since I wanted to catch something we would eventually eat.

I really enjoyed fishing in Naples.  The quality and freshness of the fish combined with cooking made for a great day.  Plus Big Al and co. have a well run and totally reasonably priced business that I would recommend to anyone.

I had originally planned on making thanksgiving, fishing trip, fish cleaning, and the fish meal all one post, but this is already way too long.  Plus, it means I will definitely have a post to put up early next week.  Till then…