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.

Little Compton Hot Dogs

First, my apologies for the lack of posts.  Too much traveling and a lack of internet.  I will try to do better and I have a few recent meals that will make shorter posts.  This is one of them.

On our final Saturday night in Little Compton we had about 15 people staying in the house and we decided the best way to feed everyone would be a lobster bake.  To get people hungry we started out with a guacamole competition between me and my friend Emily.

Emyo's guac is the far one, mine is the closer one. Hers was chunky because her hand hurt too much to mash it well. Waaaahhhhh, poor baby. I am just bitter because hers tasted better

Due to the lack of quality ventilation in the house and it still recovering from my lobster marinara, we decided to do the lobster bake outside.  Enter the Tim Ryan turkey fryer.

When Tim and I first used a turkey fryer we remarked how awesome it would be to cook, like, a hundred buffalo wings in it. As we thought about that in slack-jawed amazement, I realized we would both need seatbelt extensions on airplanes at some point in our lives

Between that and the wooden cornhole game we made (Tim did the woodwork, Kristi did the bags, I criticized), we were definitely the rednecks of this quaint and quiet beach community.

Buschy and Kristi at least looked like they belonged. I was probably shirtless and drinking a budweiser while I took this picture

Back to the lobster bake, the bottom of the pot had three rocks to separate the steamer basket from the water.  Into the basket went 60 clams and 15 lobsters.

I am looking forward to a 6-7 month break from clams and lobsters...

...though I could easily be convinced to change my mind. This picture makes me hungry and it is mainly of decking and shingles

Now for why the post is named “Little Compton Hot Dogs”, once the water was boiling and we were about to put the clam/lobster basket in, I threw 10 hotdogs into the bottom of the pot.  My thought was that they would cook in the liquid that came out of the clams and lobsters and take on some of the flavor.

There was a lot of head shaking off camera. Either no one liked the sound of this idea or no one liked the sound of my voice talking about it nonstop. I blame the idea.

Then the clams and lobsters went in on top.

I made eye contact with a few too many of them during this process.

Some people were distracted by the sunset.

Pretty great spot. Well chosen rental, Mommy Ryan

But I just stared at the pot until it was time to turn off the propane burner and pull the basket.  Which gave us our first look at the cooked hot dogs.

Can't say that people were looking into the pot, slapping me on the back, and congratulating me on a great idea. Most said that it looked like a revolting joke

Hot dogs came out and were put on a plate where they were aptly descibed as looking like, “cafeteria hot dogs”. But I still had hope. We then put the lobsters back in the pot to separate them from the clams.

I was whining about how my hands were still burning through the mitt so Tim came in and barehanded them to show me up. Stupid brother with his stupid calloused hands from doing stupid real man work

Along with 5 pounds of red potatoes and corn it made for an excellent meal.  The hot dogs ended up looking appetizing once they were out of the water for a few minutes and got their color back.

All but one of the dogs ended up being eaten, and I ate that one the next day for lunch

I’d love to say that you could taste the shellfish juice in the hot dogs but you really couldn’t aside from them being a little saltier.  Oh well, I would still do it again.

The whole meal ended up excellent and included Emily getting completely covered with lobster fat while cracking a claw for her fiance Nate.  That upstaged the meal as the highlight of the evening for everyone but Emyo.

Next post will be about an oxtail stew that I made for our fantasy football draft.

Shellfish in Harpswell, Maine

This past weekend we headed to Harpswell, Maine to celebrate Kristi’s 30th with her twin sister Kate at her husband’s family vacation home.  As usual, I was obnoxious about wanting to cook certain dishes and look for food as the weekend progressed.

For five months every year, Maine is the most beautiful place in America

In the morning I went looking for mussels at low tide.  Very different from my previous experiences since the mussels were buried in sand instead of mud.

Thousands of empty mussel, clam and scallop shells littered the beach, perfect for putting some fresh gashes in my feet

I looked for mussels the only way I know how: look for the biggest ones with as few barnacles as possible while dismissing any found by other people as “not what we’re looking for”.  Eventually I had a few pounds in my trusty Hannafords bag.

So far on this blog I have worn a Rolling Rock shirt, a "snoozy baby bear" shirt, and two absurd sleeveless tees. With that history in mind, I present my Le Tub Restaurant pocket tee. It has a huge hamburger on the back. I am 30.

I definitely had some concerns about how gritty these mussels would be so I soaked them in fresh saltwater for about 6 hours changing the water about every hour.

After two good experiences with wild mussels I was a little too optimistic about these

While the mussels soaked we played lawn games and waited for the main event to be delivered; a container of 16 lobsters from a friend of Reeves’ family.  Since, food is always better after you have had a few beers in the sun, we did just that.

Don't worry, she's cool, we hid her giant plastic keys before she started tipping them back. Plus, another outstanding tee shirt by me

After some giddy celebration when the lobsters showed up, they were all thrown in a giant steaming pot on the beach.  I would love to take credit for the setup, but the neighbors were also having a lobster bake and offered to cook ours with theirs.  While they cooked, I steamed up the mussels and put them out as an app.

Uneaten mussels on the left, empties on the right

The mussels had more pearls and were generally grittier than the mussels we found by Hermit Island.  They also were not as pretty, with very few having that nice orange color that you see in the header image on this blog.  The taste was solid, but all of the extracurriculars made it less enjoyable.  My brother in-law Chandler was undeterred by the grit and probably ate half of them.

Upon returning to the beach we saw this:

Its gonna take the birth of my first child to knock this out of the #2 spot on the "happiest moments of my life" list. Sad that a wedding and a kid would be the only two inedible items on that top ten list

After gorging ourselves on butter and lobster for the following hour we still had a few leftover so we decided to harvest the meat and save it for the next day.  As usual, this turned into one of the better meals of the weekend when we tossed the meat with diced red onion and celery, little mayo, little olive oil, and salt and pepper. Plop that on a hot dog bun and you have pure deliciousness.

I frowned when I saw Kristi had added salad to my plate before I noticed a handy bottle of ranch dressing to avert any chance of ingesting something healthy

The texture of the big chunks of lobster meat made the sandwich.

I hope the day never comes where looking at this doesn't make me painfully hungry

And that was it.  We headed back to the far less delicious mainland and I have been thinking about it ever since.  I can’t wait to go back, eat a ton more lobster, and get another shot at the mussels.  Thanks again Kate, Reeves and family!

Next week, an attempt to make a good meal out of some lesser used cuts of meat.

Foraging for Food: Mussels

One of my favorite things to do is cook and eat food that I have had some hand in finding/catching/growing/hunting.  However, I have the following things working against me:

1) I didn’t grow up shooting guns and have only done so in the past year.  At brightly colored pieces of clay.  Poorly.

2) I think if I ever shot and killed an animal I would likely cry about it for a few days.

3) I suck at fly fishing and somehow can’t even catch a fish with a spinner reel and a worm.

4) I over-water or under-water vegetable plants until they die.  There is no in between for me.

The one thing that I have figured out I have a talent for, meaning its extremely easy, is catching/gathering shellfish with the intention of eating them.  They are basically rocks with a sweet delicious inside: right up my alley.  The first installment of Foraging for Food focuses on the shellfish that surprised me most with its quality: mussels.

Here’s all that’s needed: running water, possibly a scrub brush, some salt, a steamer pot, and something to soak the mussels in.  Oh, and a bay that smells a little funky, preferably in picturesque Maine.

See that white house in the distance? Its a bar where I watched the U.S. lose to Ghana and got the liquid courage to walk out into the muck

According to the drunks at Pollys in Beach Haven, NJ, the best time for going after any mollusk is a couple hours before, or right at, low tide. Make sure you leave your douchey footwear on shore.

Artsy shot from Kristi. Also, the Nike factory store in Freeport is on the way to Phippsbugh, ME

Mussels basically grow on anything stationary in tidal areas.  I didn’t just make that up based on my experience.  As far as you know.  If you dig in the mud around rocks you can pull off clusters of mussels.

Glad I never got an ill advised tattoo on the small of my back in my teens

In about 5 minutes I was able to find 3-4 pounds of mussels and put them in my handy Hannaford’s shopping bag.

I either need to stop eating food drenched in drawn butter or get some sort of training bra

The biggest difference between mussels you find and what you will get in a restaurant is that they are a lot uglier. They are covered in mud, nicked up, have barnacles growing on them, and will be attached to empty shells and sticks.  They need to be rinsed and scrubbed thoroughly in fresh water and have all attached debris cleaned off.  The barnacles are fine; they fall off in cooking and are actually edible if you are feeling adventurous.

Once they are clean they should be placed in a container of salted freshwater for at least an hour to get some of the remaining sediment filtered out.  If you have time, change the water halfway through and soak them longer.

Forgot a bowl so I soaked in the steamer pot

Close up. Not as pretty with all the barnacles but just as delicious if not moreso

Once they have soaked, they are ready to be steamed in the same manner that you would steam any other shellfish.

About a half inch to an inch of water in the pot, then a steaming insert goes over that inside the pot

I have washed my hair four times in two days and I think I still smell like smoke

I personally like to overcook them a bit since its very hard to make mussels chewy and its better to be safe than sorry with something you pulled out of foul smelling mud a few hours earlier.  Also, given that history, its amazing how clean and fresh the mussels taste.

White wine, drawn butter, and mussels. Doesn't get more straightforward than that

This shot makes me so hungry. They were so good and tasted distinctly different than farmed mussels

As far as the barnacles go, they pop right off after cooking and if you find a large one that fell off, you can scoop out the meat from the back.  Very sweet meat, with an interesting texture.

Kristi loved the mussels too which is a good sign of whether its just my adventurous tastes. She didn't even mind the occasional mini pearl you find in wild mussels

And thats about it, easily the cleanest and freshest tasting mussels I have ever had and so good with simple drawn butter.  These mussels wouldn’t hold up as well if cooked in wine and served in a broth due to all the extras on the shell, but on their own they were definitely impressive.  As is Maine, what a place.

The crazy thing is this shot doesn't even come close to capturing how beautiful it was

Next week, New Jersey littleneck clams.  Definitely with an extra-large helping of sleeveless shirts and general DBishness.