The sea is our most valuable resource here on the island. We are literally haunted by its crashing surf and demanding call. There are few places on the island where the evidence of the sea is not in some way visible. It fuses itself into our every understanding, whether we see it on a long drive home in the distance, or witness the ravage of salt rusted fixtures and appliances because it moves so easily with the trade winds across the island. By definition, all island people are bound to the sea. It gives us a place to celebrate on its shores; offers us ways to rejuvenate our sick or weary bodies—there are few ailments that aren’t cured by a good “sea soak”; and most importantly it nourishes us from its bountiful depths. One of my favorite gifts from the sea is the conch. When prepared correctly, the conch transforms itself from a mere bottom-dwelling , sea snail into tender, flavorful, oceanic ambrosia! (Yes, it warrants all those adjectives because it is just THAT good!)
Local fishermen harvest the conchs and sell them along the roadside or at the market. They are so flavorful, that our government has wisely placed restrictions on its quantity and availability. I encourage everyone on the island to only purchase conch during the regulated seasons. They are a necessary part of our delicate ecosystem. In order to maintain that balance, we should use our plates as a form of respect and only eat in ways that maintain the beauty of our island.
The picture above is what conchs look like when you take them out of the bag. How could something that lives in such a beautiful and revered shell, with its kingly spire, not be mouth-wateringly tasty! But the conch is a resilient food, and cooking it can be a long process to finally help it yield to its softest self. It is not uncommon to see folks beat the conch (and themselves) into submission, only to plop it into an unpersuasive pressure cooker, and pray that if it hasn’t surrendered to the hammer, that it would to the pot.
My then neighbor, and soon to be husband, gave me my first experience with conchs. He is an avid diver and brought me one in the shell with the sand still clinging to it. I will spare the details of my hilarious, epic, battle with this sea snail, and simply say that my husband must have REALLY been smitten with me to marry me after that experience!
After much time, I have found an easier way to cook conch. One that involves no pounding, exhaustion, or praying to create. It can almost be described as an island conch scampi! I hope you enjoy this recipe! Get in the kitchen and try it out, and let me know how it came out for you!
5 Conch Steaks (cleaned)
1 Stick of butter
1 Medium Onion
½-1 Teaspoon Thyme
Salt and Pepper to Taste
2 Stalks Culantro/Cilantro
1-2 Sweet Seasoning Peppers
6 Cloves of Garlic
1/2 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Curry Powder
2 Cups of Reserved Conch Water
Enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a pan
Clean the conch properly. This is a long process that can involve scrubbing the conch down with cornmeal, limes, vinegar to cut the slimy coat that naturally covers it. Once this is done, take off the small dark parts that dangle off the conch, and thoroughly clean out the interior of the conch. You will see a line running just under the surface of the conch, cut along this line and rinse out the inside.
After the conch has been properly cleaned place it in a slow cooker and cover with water and allow to boil for about two hours. Throw off that first water, and continue to boil the conch once more. I do this a total of about three times at three hour intervals. (I said it was easy, I didn’t say it wasn’t long.) I also urge you to use fresh BOILING water whenever you change the water. DO NOT use cold water on it. I fear this could toughen the conch and take the conch longer to tenderize.
The final time leave the conch for about another three hours and do not throw off the water that it is boiled in as this contains the essence of the conch flavor. I let the slow cooker do all the tenderizing. No beating or pressure cooking necessary.
Then take a stick of butter and place it in a pot and let it melt slowly, let is simmer until the butter begins to foam on the top. After about three minutes the foam will start to fall to the bottom of the pan, after another three or so minutes the solids at the bottom will start to brown. Take it off the heat and pour it in a heatproof container. Refrigerate after it comes to room temperature. This is how to make a good brown butter. While I prefer the flavor of the brown butter, you can simply use butter in the recipe and it will taste just perfect!
After the conch is tender, you slice it into bite size pieces and put aside.
Then in a heated pot, add olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and all the other ingredients except the butter and cook until the onions are completely translucent and cooked down.
Add the conch and stir briefly.
Then add the butter and half cup intervals of the reserved conch water to the sauce. Let it cook together on a low heat until the flavors are fully developed. I have left the conch to cook for over an hour on a low, gentle flame in order to make sure that the conch absorbs all the spices.
This is a basic conch in butter sauce recipe, but and is fairly mild. You can jazz it up with the addition of some spicy hot peppers, chipotle powder, a squeeze of lime, or even a sprig of Big Leaf Thyme! Conch is the sea’s somewhat blank canvass and it absorbs most flavors extremely well and compliments it. Be adventurous!
Pair this dish with a nice coconut jasmine or basmati rice, a few slices of fried plantains and enjoy the sea’s gift to your plate! Enjoy!!