Weird Crap I Cook: Shad Roe & Veal Brains

Last weekend we headed down to Naples to visit Mommy Ryan and get away from the cold weather in Boston.  If you’ve briefly visited Naples before, you might not think highly of the food scene there; lots of small strip mall restaurants or overpriced large restaurants downtown.  But, after a few years of visits to Naples I can confidently say it is one of my favorite places to eat despite then having to go shirtless at the beach and pool.  The food is diverse, high quality, and spans regional cuisine from across the country and other cultures as well.  Makes sense considering people move there from pretty much everywhere and want their favorite comfort foods nearby.

While visiting I sampled some incredible pastrami from Pastrami Dan’s (a retired New Yorker), fried sheep’s milk cheese with chicken livers and tender octopus from Pelagos, upscale Mexican from Masa, and traditional seafood at Kelly’s.  The bakeries and raw materials to cook at home are equally as diverse and awse.  A few examples:

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of Michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Those strip malls house small restaurants that make items like pissaladiere from Paris Bakery.  That's a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you've ever had

Paris Bakery lives in one of those anonymous strip malls and serves a mean pissaladiere.  That’s a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions that have been cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you’ve ever had

Wagyu ribeye from Jimmy P's butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn's seafood market

Wagyu rib steak from Jimmy P’s butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn’s seafood market.  I took this after already coating the tuna steak with chili oil for the grill if you’re wondering what that bizarre orange stuff is

Jimmy P’s and Wynn’s have supplied the ingredients for previous blog posts including lamb kidneys and all posts involving head-on shrimp.  So, in addition to the two delicious pieces of meat shown above, I also tapped them for two odd items I’d never sampled before: veal brains and shad roe.

Veal brains are pretty self explanatory, but shad roe is the roe sack from a river herring that is usually only harvested for a brief period every year.  I learned all of that just now from Wikipedia, but I had long been interested in shad roe since Mooman has raved about it for years.  I was very excited when I saw it at Wynn’s, even though it is funky looking stuff.

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

Funky looking stuff, and apparently this wasn’t even half as bad as it looks when it is very fresh.  What’s in the container represents the two roe sacks from one fish, connected by a membrane in the center.  At this point I couldn’t understand what all the fuss (primarily from Mooman) was about; it looked just like any other roe sack from a fish.  And those other roe sacks tend to cook up mealy, flavorless, and insanely dry.

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason's fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason’s fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison since that just tasted like salty sand

While a few pats of butter melted in a sautee pan, I separated the roe sacks from the center membrane and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper.  Once the butter started to brown slightly, I added the shad roe to the pan.

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn't promising food for anyone but me

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn’t promising food for anyone but me

After a few minutes of saute time, the roe sacks appeared to be firming up a bit so I flipped them and squeezed a little lemon juice into the pan as well.

Color and everything was looking solid, but the shape and visible texture makes this a not easy entry point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I've never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later)

Color was looking solid, but the shape and visually concerning texture makes this not an easy entry-point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I’ve never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later) and I would still excitedly eat it in that scenario

After a few more minutes, I divided each roe sack in half and moved them to pieces of toasted baguette.  The remaining butter stayed over medium heat with an additional splash of white wine and a squeeze of additional lemon juice.  After a couple minutes of reducing the sauce while stirring constantly, I poured a few spoonfuls over each of the pieces of shad roe and served.

I could not come up with a vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explainst the jagged edges

I could not come up with a creative vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explains the jagged edges

Definitely the best fresh roe I’ve ever tasted since it didn’t have any of the negatives that you usually get with fish roe; not fishy, no mealiness, and the eggs still had a little pop to them.  The flavor was very mild and had a little clam-like flavor.  The brown butter, wine, and lemon sauce was a nice complement without overpowering the flavor of the roe.  The bread was probably a little unnecessary, but it did a good job of absorbing the sauce and minimized the need for utensils.  As usual with the odd stuff, Janet enjoyed it.

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person since she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she is in her PJs, I'm guessing a significant amount joined her in the crib that night

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person because she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she was in her PJs, I’m guessing a significant amount of eggs joined her in the crib that night

Now on to the veal brains.  The moment you’ve been waiting for!

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one.  Also, I love the comical brevity of meat labeling.  I feel like organ meat labels should hem and haw like someone trying to hide what the meat truly is until you sample it

I’ve had some ups (goat) and downs (sheep) with brains over the past few years, but I thought veal would be a solid choice since I assumed the flavor would be mild.  The brains went into a cold water bath for about 6 hours, changing the water regularly.

Once the water remained relatively clear after 30 minutes, I removed the brains to dry them and lay out on the cutting board.  You knew this foto was coming at some point and it ends up being pretty brutal.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let's get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let’s get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately

The brains were soft and there was a fair amount of brain stem pieces.  Good god this sucks to write about.  Let’s fast forward to when I was done cutting into individual pieces and tossing in flour seasoned heavily with salt and pepper.

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

I coated the pieces in flour and fried in two batches.  While I was in the process of trimming and coating, I had a pan of vegetable oil and some bacon fat heating on the stovetop.  Once a small piece of bread browned within 30 seconds when dropped in the oil, I added the brain pieces to the oil.

I was hiding from the oil as usual at this point.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else's home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

I was hiding from the oil at any time that I wasn’t taking pictures.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else’s home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

After 3-4 minutes I flipped each piece then cooked for a few more minutes before transferring to paper towels to drain off any excess oil.

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

The next batch headed (wokka wokka) into the oil and went through the same flipping and draining process.  Originally I had hoped to drizzle a little butter, lemon, and caper sauce but I forgot about it while it was on the stove and that didn’t really work out for me.  So. instead, I squeezed a little lemon over the pieces and topped with chopped parsley and shredded parm.

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when about 30 whole fried sardines were served this way

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when I made it through a gigantic plate of whole fried sardines served this way

I was relatively confident that these would be tasty but I was surprised they turned out as well as they did.  The coating was salty and had some smoky pork flavor from the bacon grease.  The texture and flavor of the brains was almost identical to veal sweetbreads, with a crunchy fried exterior.  The meat was soft and creamy, which might sound off-putting but it is why it pairs so well with a crunchy coating.  The flavor was very mild and only slightly beef-like, which also makes it very difficult to describe.  Just try sweetbreads next time you see them on a menu and you’ll get what I am talking about.

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren't that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren’t that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

I was most impressed with how much of that pile of fried food we went through.  Janet had been in bed for a few hours so she was of no help, but between me, Tim, and Mommy Ryan we made it through all but a couple of these.  Kristi pretty much sat out all adventurous foods in this meal.

I need to take a few weeks off from WCIC after this one.  This one was odd even by my standards.

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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.

IMG_2228

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.

IMG_2308

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).

IMG_2368

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!!