Monday, November 23, 2009
Cayman Islands - Conch (pronounced "konk")
I believe in signs. But most of the time we need to be hit over the head until we notice them. It’s like in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty when Bruce Nolan, a television reporter who is down on his luck, thinks God is ignoring him. One night, he’s very angry and he’s driving his car down a dark road and he’s talking to God and asking him for a sign – any sign. In the meantime, we see Bruce passing road signs that warn him of danger ahead but, of course, Bruce is so wrapped up in blaming God for all his problems that he doesn’t see the signs and crashes.
Sometimes, with all the choices out there, I need direction on what to cook for any particular country that I’m working on. I need a sign.
On Sunday morning I woke up and lazily grabbed the book I was reading called The Bizarre Truth by Andrew Zimmern. Zimmern has his own show on the travel channel and he travels around the world and eats, well, bizarre foods. This guy eats everything from giant fruit bats to cheese covered in maggots. Yet there are times when he eats things that are quite tasty.
I was reading the chapter where Zimmern was describing catching conch off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. After collecting a bunch, he and others, took the mollusks back to shore where they ate a delicious conch meal on the beach.
I then got out of bed, got dressed and went to my computer where I googled my next country to cook, the Cayman Islands. The first thing I read about the Cayman Islands is that it’s the homeland of the conch. Interesting. However, it was a Sunday and the seafood market I go to was closed, and besides, I read somewhere that one shouldn’t buy seafood on Sundays and Mondays because it's not fresh. So I tossed the conch idea aside.
Later, Julia and I decided to go an Asian grocery store, called T&T, which I had been dying to check out. I envisioned a little Asia-mart but this place was an Asian superstore. It had everything from Peking duck to durian. Best of all, it had fresh seafood, and not the kind you see at your local grocery store. It had large fresh crab, eel, many different kinds of fish and they had conch. Not only did they have fresh conch but it was on sale, it was the manager’s special.
If this isn’t a sign I don’t know what is.
I grabbed a basket and tongs and helped myself to the conch. That’s what you do in this Asian supermarket: you fish out what you want from the tanks and then put your find in a basket to be weighed. The woman who weighs threw my conch in a bag and handed them to me. I handed them back. I knew from reading Zimmern’s book, just that morning, that extracting the conch from its shell can be hard laborious work. He recommended that you don’t simply boil the conch to get them out because it might ruin the taste of the meat. I know the idea of me trying to get the little buggers out of their shells would have made a hilarious story but I was going to play it smart this time and have someone else do it.
I tried to explain all this to the Chinese woman who spoke no English. She looked at me with incredulous impatience as I began miming in front of her and Julia hid behind the tank of giant clams. The woman grunted, grabbed the bag and walked away. I then heard very loud banging and she came back with just the conch and no shells.
At home I found a conch chowder recipe from the Cayman Islands. To make the chowder was quite simple but when Kevin asked if there was anything he could do to help I handed him the conch and told him I needed him to chop them up.
“Are they alive?” he asked.
I shrugged. “They were when I bought them.”
I placed the conch on the cutting board and the two of us inspected the species that looked like a cross between slugs and scallops. I pointed out the conch penises, which are rather large compared to their body sizes. Kevin made a face and diligently cut that part off.
“That’s good meat,” I protested since these suckers weren’t very big to begin with.
“No way,” Kevin retorted. “We’re not eating that!”
When I cooked the chowder which consisted of leeks, carrots, onion, potatoes, garlic and cream I should have thrown in the penises along with the other meat – like they would have known. Maybe next time. I’d like to brag that I’ve eaten conch penis, however pornographic that may sound. Zimmern did. But then again, he’s eaten maggots…
The conch chowder was delicious - one of my favorites. I wouldn’t mind going to the Cayman Islands, in the Western Caribbean Sea and the location of the world famous seven-mile beach, to eat it fresh. I bet it would taste much better.
I wonder if I should go there. I’ll look for the signs.
1 lb chopped conch
1/2 leek, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 potatoes, cut into small cubes
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups fish stock (I used chicken stock )
2 cups water
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 TBSP butter
1/2 tsp corn starch dissolved in a little water
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
A few drops of Tabasco
Heat the butter in a skillet, sauté the leeks, carrots, onions and garlic for two minutes. Then add wine, cream, water and fish stock. Then add the potatoes, conch and seasonings. Simmer until potatoes are cooked.