On calm, sunny days, when the swells at Beaufort Inlet are smooth enough to negotiate in our little motor boat, we ride the waves up the coast of Shackleford Banks, part of the National Seashore, toward Cape Lookout about eight miles away.
Sometimes we see the wild ponies grazing on the top of the dune line, or frolicking in the shallow water near the hook of the cape.
|Right or Left-handed Whelks, or Carolina Conch|
And if it's really calm, we can anchor the boat close enough to shore to wade or swim in to the beach. It's such a thrill to walk this powdery, white strip and see hardly another living soul, filling my bucket with gorgeous specimens of olive shells, whelks, or if I'm really lucky, a Scotch bonnet, NC's state shell. But the whelk shells we've gathered over the years are the prizes that line my bookshelves, the porch and garden back home.
On the sound side of Shackleford, we've seen a few live whelks, or what locals call conch. There are more in Bogue Sound, south of Morehead down to Swansboro, where shrimpers dredge them up while waiting for the shrimp to come in each spring. We've never taken one home, knowing that it's a real pain to extract the meat from the shell and then a mess to clean. Then you've got to beat the meat to tenderize it.
And so last week, around Tax Day in April, we were at Willis's Seafood market in Salter Path, down Bogue Banks, hunting for our dinner. Wade Willis was washing up some thick, large strips I didn't recognize. "What's that?" my husband, Steve, asked.
"Conchhhhh," he replied. Steve didn't understand, so we both listened more closely when we asked again.
"Connnn." He looked over his shoulder at us like we were deaf and dumb. "Connnch, you know, from out there," he nodded toward the water.
Hum. Conch...."conk?" Yep, he nodded.
|A pound of cleaned conch from Willis Seafood, Salter Path|
Seems the locals down this way don't pronounce the "ch" as a "k" sound, but rather garble the "ch" as in "church."
And they are scientifically of the Busycon genus, truly whelks - channeled, lightning or knobbed whelks - that are either right or left-handed, depending on what side their opening is. But don't start talking whelks to anybody along Bogue Sound, because they are simply "conchhhh."
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH CONCH?
Now, we've helped beat a piece of conch to tenderize it for frying while in the Abacos, in the Bahamas. We love the spicy, cool salad of conch served ceviche style on Grand Cayman, and in fritters in the Florida Keys and the Virgin Islands.
So what do they do with "conch" Down East in North Carolina? Fritters and fried, yes, but mostly they make a stew that's very similar to the traditional Outer Banks clam chowder, with some kind of pork, usually fat back, with onions and potatoes. Along this middle section of NC's oceanfront, also called the Crystal Coast, they'll add cornmeal for thickening, or add cornmeal dumplings at the end of cooking. It's a special treat served in a few, old-fashioned restaurants each spring, such as the Crab Shack in Salter Path.
|The cleaned, conch "muscle."|
Conchs are basically sea snails, wound up inside their shells. Old cookbooks tell readers to place the conch in the freezer, which makes it easier to pull the muscle from the shell. Otherwise, you have to drill or beat a hole in the top of the shell to get their foot suction loose. They need to be cleaned, all the black surface that contains toxins to humans, totally removed.
One recipe in an older cookbook from Carteret County suggested if you had a large number of conch to clean, to put them in your washing machine. You can clean the washer later with bleach, the lady advised.
If you are frying up large sections, then you'll need to tenderize the meat. It's a good way to get out any aggressions or tensions you may have built up, beating the conch with a hammer or board, till the meat is pressed thin.
|Minced cooked conch|
Since I wanted to make a stew to ward off the cool, wet spring weather, I sliced each muscle into small chunks, as some of the old recipes suggested, then simmered them in water for a couple of hours until tender. I worried a bit, as the smell while the conch simmered was not very appetizing, but tastes of the meat proved it was fine, a little like clam, a little bit more fishy.
Then I minced the tender, cooked meat. I softened chopped bacon and onions together over low heat, then to the pot added canned tomatoes, the minced conch, chopped red potatoes, and enough water to cover, then left it on a slow simmer until the potatoes were tender. Then I spiced it up with a bit of Old Bay, and red pepper flakes.
Oh my. Yep. Tasty, soul-warming. Made me dream of beaching it at Shackleford on a warm summer day, filling my bucket with lots of shells.
UPBEAT, DOWN EAST CONCH CHOWDER
about 1 pound cleaned conch
several slices of thick bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
about 1 1/2 cup chopped potatoes
6 to 8 cups of water
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1tablespoon Old Bay, or to taste
about 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
Cut conch into small chunks, and place in a medium saucepan. Cover with water. Simmer over low heat for about two hours, or until meat is tender. Discard cooking water. Chop conch meat into tiny pieces.
In the pot, add the bacon, and cook and stir until some grease is released. And onion, and cook and stir over low heat until onion begins to soften, about three minutes. Add the tomatoes, with the juice, the chopped clams, and the potatoes. Add enough water to cover the mixture. Bring to a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add Old Bay and red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve piping hot, with bread for dipping.
(c) Please be nice and give credit when sharing.