September 1, 2014

Conch Dreams

There is no time of year when the Gulf more resembles the Caribbean than in the late winter, before the spring and summer rains come to muddy up things, and the water is at its bluest best. Ignore the immediate distractions-shadows cast by a towering condo, the prevalence of Midwestern accents-and it's easy to imagine sitting on a beach somewhere in the Bahamas or the Turks and Caicos island chains, where Strombus gigas are plentiful and all is well with the world.

We know them better as queen conch, the football-sized, pink-lipped univalves that are the emblem of our neighbors to the south in the Keys, a.k.a. the Conch Republic. If shell-strewn middens left by the Calusa along Estero Bay and in the Ten Thousand Islands are any indication, then the queen conch once enjoyed a notable population in these parts, staples as they were for many an Amerindian meal.

So it's only natural, I suppose, while lounging around on a Gulfshore beach, to be overcome by a distinct longing for the day when those of us who call this place home could wade into the water and grab ourselves some conch to eat. Conch salad. Conch chowder. Conch cracked and fried with lots of pepper. Conch in any form. It's food that goes with the turf. Or used to, anyway.

There is minor good news on that front. Marine biologists have been spending lots of federal money over the last decade to restock Strombus gigas along the Florida Keys, where harvesting them has been outlawed since 1975. Once there were fewer than 5,000 queen conch left in Florida waters, but now there are thought to be more than 20,000. Not enough to resume recreational harvesting, but enough to hold out hope. And since queen conch send millions of larvae onto the sea currents to find their way to adulthood-some are known to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles-there is the dream, however fleeting, that some might just float this way.

Which does not satisfy the immediate longing, when one is looking out on the Gulf and in a Caribbean state of mind and needful of, say, some conch fritters to complete the picture. For that, one must visit the seafood store and buy frozen conch, most likely from the Turks and Caicos or Honduras, which goes for about $10-$12 a pound. And then all one need do is follow this tried-and-true recipe, which I can confidently say will produce the best conch fritters in the world.

2 cups conch meat, pounded and diced (about one pound)

2 cups self-rising flour

2 eggs

1 onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

1 tablespoon of your favorite hot sauce

About 1/2 cup milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Peanut oil

The secret to conch is you have to pound it before you can eat it. So take a ball peen hammer and beat the conch on a cutting board until the thick membrane breaks and the conch flattens out like veal scaloppini. Then slice it into good-sized chunks. In too many fritters-the kind you get at most restaurants-they process the conch into minuscule bits and it might as well not even be there. But these are fritters with substance.

Then mix together all the ingredients, heat the peanut oil in a cast-iron skillet and fry spoon size balls of batter until they are brown and crunchy. Eat them while looking out on the Gulf, dreaming of the day when the queen conch return. 

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