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.

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