Friday, December 31, 2010

The common oyster drill

Ask any oysterman in Texas about the oyster drill and the response you get might be laced with expletives. Ask an oysterman in Louisiana about oyster drills and they will say the same thing...and then they will tell you how to cook them.

Oyster drills are a species of carnivorous snail against whom oystermen have been waging a war for well over a century on the Gulf Coast. This is because oyster drills love to eat oysters. Specifically, drills love to eat young oysters, called spats. The drill bores a hole through the thin shell of a young oyster and sucks the sweet innards out. A drill can bore through and eat about a spat a day. They move fast, and have a finely tuned sensory system perfectly equipped to find whatever food is available, including mussels, barnacles, detritus, and the aforementioned oyster.

All that aside, the oyster drill is still a snail. And, being a snail, the drill is delightful fare for the table. Happily for those of us who are lucky enough to live near the Gulf Coast, drills are plentiful and easy to find. They are not consistently found, but a solitary drill is rarely encountered. If you see one, chances are you will soon find enough, with a little patience, to provide a fine meal, if nothing else. The first picture shows the results of about 15 minutes' work in a good spot. Look for them in saltier areas of bays, around oyster reefs and on rocky areas. They are usually not found in very sandy areas.

Alas, though snails are eaten throughout the world, on all continents where they are found, very few Americans are these days familiar at all with the humble snail. Even most chefs are at a loss when presented with a live gastropod, which is not at all surprising, considering the only snail most chefs will see comes out of a can. Don't get me wrong- high quality canned snails exist, and they are a joy to eat, but they are still a far cry from the animal in situ. I have been very lucky, and have had many chances to cook, clean, and eat fresh snails- vineyard snails in Paris and Aix, rice field snails in Chiang Mai, Apple snails in Udon, marsh periwinkles, drills, and whelks in Texas and Louisiana. Let us not underestimate any snail.

What follows, with apologies to any who consider it elementary, is a bit of an introduction to the humble oyster drill. Most of the following comments apply to all snails- though our marsh periwinkles and other small snails do not require the same treatment to render them tender- though they certainly don't suffer from it.

First- a drill may not be cooked like a bi-valve. The edible part of the drill is the 'foot', which is used for locomotion and feeding. Hence, the muscle is quite strong, and the meat is consequently quite firm. Not tough, but certainly firm. A bit of further processing is necessary if you're looking for anything with a less crispy texture.

On the other hand, my wife has certainly done them right with just a quick boil in 'laab hoy'.

The edible portion may be extracted in one of two basic ways- raw or cooked. If you are looking for raw meat: one swift blow with a claw hammer will bust the shell. Pull out the whole animal. Pull off the large sac of guts. There will still be another section of gut which is attached to the head. Look for antennae (or small stubs) right at the base of the 'foot'. Slip your nail under the head, and pull toward the 'tail'. With a little practice, this piece is easily removed. The 'operculum' (the 'shell' on the 'foot') may be cut off with a knife. The picture shows whelk meat, but the idea is the same. I might recommend wearing gloves if you shell the drills raw. The drills secrete a chemical which, when exposed to oxygen, turns purple. Though it is completely harmless, it will stain hands for weeks (incidentally, it is a species closely related to drills that was used in the ancient Mediterranean world in the production of a fabulously expensive cloth dye).

Otherwise, you may extract the meat after cooked. Blanch the snails for 10-15 minutes in salted water. When the operculums start falling off, the snails are ready. Let them cool, then pull the meat out with a toothpick. Pull off all the organs just as you would for raw snails.

Now, what does one do with snails? Raw, they may be pounded then fried or grilled; they very good ground and used in chowders or stuffings. At our house, drill fritters with a pungent dipping sauce are a consistent hit. Large drills are just barely big enough to be pounded into very small 'drill steaks'. Blanched meat may be used in soups, braised with garlic (with stunning results), tossed into salads, pickled, preserved, and simply eaten with a good drawn butter and salt. Or just throw the live snails in a curry, cook for about 20 minutes, and pick the meat out of the shells at the table.
There are undoubtedly dozen of ways to cook oyster drills that are even better than what I've mentioned here. Find out some of them for yourself. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Whelks, clams, and periwinkles (oysters, too)

As I watched weather patterns unfolding last week, I dared not hope that conditions would be right for another foraging trip. Around noon on Saturday, the wind became erratic, trying to decide from which direction it should blow. By late afternoon, though, the wind was indecisive no more. 20-25 mph winds coming from the north/northwest. That, combined with a decent enough low tide predicted for Sunday morning, made up my mind. We loaded up Sunday morning, and hurried down as fast as we could. It was about 9 am when I finally got to a good spot on ___________ bay (find your own foraging spot!). Not a cloud in the sky, and aside from the cold wind, the day couldn't have been nicer.
Before getting my feet wet, I spent a few moments collecting some marsh periwinkles (Littorina irorrata), which were clinging to the bases and stalks of the spartina grass.
Periwinkles in general are pretty small creatures, and our local variety is a touch smaller than others. There is no fast way to prepare them that I am aware of. First, the tip of the shell must be clipped off to eliminate the vacuum. This is accomplished with a strong pair of poultry shears.

After the snails are cooked, the body falls out of the shell easily. My wife eats the whole critter. I do not care for snail guts as much, so I pull them off. Either way, you end up with a piece of meat so insignificant that you would have to clean several dozen periwinkles for a mouthful. But the taste is superb, with a minerally start and noticeably sweet finish. Definitely worth the effort....occasionally.

After gathering more than enough periwinkles, I trudged out to the mud flats exposed by the low tide and high winds. After an hour or two spent wading through thigh-high muddy sand, fruitlessly searching for jackknife and razor clams (the shells were in their death stance EVERYWHERE, but I never got one), I tried the grass flats. Limited visibility, even at 7 inches (again, the wind) hampered my efforts- no scallops, no little clams.

The massive Southern Quahog clam (Mercenaria campechiensis texansis) was another matter. They are usually just under the surface anyway, and the winds had exposed several. Happily, I snatched a half dozen, the least of which weighed about a pound. The coin in the photos is a quarter. These guys went right into the chowder pot back home. They cannot be prepared as a small steamer would, but cooked properly are suitably tender. The taste is exquisite, and the flavor they impart to a chowder is beyond compare.
While rejoicing in my meager catch, I spotted a nice whelk shell (Busycon spp.). These shells litter the bay shore, and usually the most exciting critter inside is an angry hermit crab.

This time, fortune was smiling on me, and I got several live whelks, all with thick fat bodies. Whelk meat has a nutty flavor, with a hint of lobster. The meat has a good texture, being firm while not at all chewy or tough. Because of the paucity of my general harvest, these guys joined the clams in the chowder. I wanted raw meat for the chowder, so I extracted the meat whilst the animal was still living.
All that is needed is a quick blow to the 'sweet spot' on the shell. My trusty shellfish mauler is tops for this (and for chipping apart oyster clumps).
The body will slip out, and once viscera is pulled off, the whelk is ready for the fire. The bony piece of shell attached to the meat (the operculum) falls off during cooking.

On my way out of the bay, I grabbed some oysters and saltwort to complete the now ecclectic shellfish chowder (I had decided the snails, in shell, would be added to the soup).

Though I never did get the razor clams or scallops (or the ubiquitous 'little fish' for my wife), we dined like royalty Sunday night.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bay foraging

Gulf Coast residents are no strangers to the great bay systems. We go and we know what to look for in order to catch a fish- the right tides, birds feeding, slicks, frantic bait fish on the surface, and a hundred other small signs. But we usually only target a few species of fish (redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sometimes drum), while remaining totally unaware of the food that is all around us. A fishing trip without catching one of the above mentioned species is considered a bust.

In my family, as long as something is brought home to eat, the trip was a success. This has much to do with my wife, who continually opens my eyes to the bounty around us. When I make an all too rare trip to the bays, my wife’s last words are always “don’t forget to catch some small fish”. So I always bring out a little pole armed with a sabiki rig, much to the amusement of others nearby, who assume I am just spending way too long trying to catch some bait
to get some ‘real’ fish. When I explain my purpose, the reaction is standard- either pity, disgust, or disbelief, followed invariably with questions as to which specific little fish taste good and how to cook them. I always suspect that the next time those folks get ahold of a little fish, they quietly put it aside so they can test what I said…of course they probably wouldn’t admit it to anyone they were with, but at least I got them thinking. When I say ‘small fish’, I am not speaking of undersized specimens of game fish, but fish like pigfish, pinfish, whiting, spots, oysterfish, ribbonfish, eels, grass breams, sea robins, bumpers, and the occasional mullet. These are the best eating fish in the bays, and I certainly would choose them over any redfish or trout.

But even a fishing pole isn’t necessary, if you’re willing to get wet and keep your eyes open. Go the shore of the bay, where all the sea grasses grow, and start looking. You will more than likely see snails at the top of the grasses (during high tide), or down in the mud (during low tides). These are, of course, marsh periwinkles, and all you need to find them is eyes and hands. Near the grasses, you’ll also find hermit crabs, which, bizarre appearance aside, are great to eat. Wade out a bit, and you’re sure to see nice fat oysters in clusters of half a dozen or more, which can be harvested easily by hand. Be careful when pulling the clusters apart, because you don’t want to miss the hooked mussels that seem to always be attached to oyster clusters. These mussels are quite small, and the beards are large in proportion to the meat. However, if they are allowed to purge, and are then de-bearded, they make a fine addition to the table. Notice also that large oysters are usually covered with barnacles, both the common and titan varieties. If the oysters are cooked in the shell (and no better way exists to cook oysters than by grilling them whole), don’t forget to pick out the barnacles. The ‘beak’ of the barnacle will poke out of the shell when cooked, and all you need to do is grab the beak and pull.
The edible portion is a small sliver of meat attached to the underside of the beak. When foraging, also keep your eyes open for oyster drills, the most rapacious invertebrate predator of the oyster. Where you find oysters, drills can’t be far away. Drills are snails, and correspond closely to the creature called ‘bulot’ in France (oddly, the Louisiana French name is ‘bigorneau’, which is the French term for periwinkle).

If you find a spot on the shore with a very gentle incline and a sandy bottom, look for vent holes. When you see them, take your shoes off and shuffle through the sand near the holes. If the holes are being made by clams
(either the true quahog or the much larger Southern Quahog), then you will find them with your toes, for clams in our parts generally burrow just a couple of centimeters below the surface.
Large whelks are pretty ubiquitous as well, though take care to only harvest the ‘right-handed’ whelks, as the ‘left-handed’ specimens are lightning whelks, and, as the state shell of Texas, are protected from any harvest. And if you are very persistent, you might just find a clutch of other shellfish in the bays, from calico clams to rangia to scallops to pen shells and beyond. And then there are the edible plants- saltwort, glasswort, purslane, cattails, to name a few. All are highly nutritious, very tasty, and incredibly easy to harvest.

If you happen to be on the beach, poke around the tide line and you might find several different clams, among them the cutest little clam there is, the coquina. It would take well over a hundred coquina to satisfy a normal appetite, but what they lack in size, they make up for in taste.
A bounty surrounds us all on the Gulf Coast, and all it takes is a bit of knowledge and practice in order to feast happily. The few species mentioned here barely scratch the surface.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

rack of grouper and the elusive turkey fish

Anyone who lives on the Texas Gulf Coast and wants grouper caught off Texas waters has certainly noticed that pickings are slim this year. In years past, grouper season opened on January 1st and closed when the quota was met- usually about May or June. Tilefish season ran concurrently. This January 1st saw the formal implementation of the grouper and tilefish ITQ, or Individual Transferrable Quota. The ITQ covers all species of grouper in the Gulf, shallow- or deepwater, which is about a dozen species. The ITQ was initiated in response to evidence of overfishing, most of which was occuring off the coast of Florida, which is prime grouper fishing. In order to qualify for a share of the ITQ quota, fishermen had to have an established history of grouper fishing- which most fishermen around here did not have (snapper has always ruled in the western Gulf, and grouper in the east). So few captains around here can make directed grouper trips. Most will pick up a few grouper when they're snapper fishing. And the most common grouper to be caught off snapper boats these days is Epinephelus nigritus, or the common warsaw grouper.

Consider the warsaw. The biggest commercially available grouper in the Gulf, they reach weights in excess of 400 lbs., though the common sizes are between 30 and 80 lbs. There are many common complaints against the warsaw, the most oft heard being a) it doesn't taste like grouper (or even fish), b) the yield is terrible (around 30%) and c) the texture is strange. I admit all that is true. Then again, if one only took the loin from a pig, would one be rational in assuming that pigs have terrible yields? If one was to eat merely the ear of the pig, could one rationally conclude that the texture of the whole pig was strange? And further, could one say that a large feral pig doesn't taste like a pig? I think not, on all accounts....though one could argue that the comparisons are a bit strained....

The warsaw shouldn't be the stepchild of the grouper family. It deserves its rightful place with its more illustrious cousins. But what can be done with the warsaw? Below are a few ideas we've been working on here in the bowels of the Captain Queeg Institute for the Advancement of Fish Eating. We used a 110 lb. warsaw.

Racks: Exactly what it sounds like: The ribs are left on the forward bottom loin, with belly meat attached. Individual chops may be cut, or two portions of ribs per loin piece. The belly may be rolled up and tied to the chop (we recommend this, as the competing textures of the rack meat and the belly is really quite nice).

Throat: Only the larger warsaws are big enough to produce throats worthy of the name. It resembles a turkey breast, and the meat is remarkably similar, in taste and texture. Definitely a piece of fish for those who insist they don't like fish. Very good roasted, grilled, bar-b-qued. The bones are few and large, so cleaning of the throat is easy. One could even, if one were inclined, make scallopini. Warsaw throat might be one of Professor Fish Heads' new favorites, so good are they.

Cheeks: As the throat reminds us of turkey, the cheek calls to mind a chicken breast. When cooked, it even pulls apart like a chicken breast. Meaty and mild. And, of course, you're talking 6-12 oz. per cheek.

Loins: A fillet from a 100 lb. grouper can be hard to handle, due to sheer size and the thickness of the fillet. Instead, we've loined the fish out like a larger pelagic fish. The top loin is further divided along the natural split (corresponding to the lateral line), resulting in three different loin pieces, all very suitable for sutting steaks. The texture on a bigger warsaw is much firmer than one would expect from a grouper. In fact, it is more akin to swordfish or mako in its firmness. The fish holds together during cooking, so grilling is an option. Expect a cooked piece of fish that is firm, but not at all tough, with an excellent sweet taste. If you're looking for a great steak fish, look no further.