Speaking, as we were the other day, sort of, of sea snails... my husband went digging for quahogs a couple times this week, and in addition to a nice supply of clams for the winter, he also brought home an assortment of snails or conch or whelk that he caught as well.
We've got two different kinds here. (Ignore the quahogs on the left - I'll get to them in another post.) I think the majority are some variety of northern whelk. The other one is some other variety of sea snail.
(Julia named this one Gary.)
I've been looking up info on conch and sea snails and whelk, and I had to stop because I'm sort of drowning in confusion. Are the names interchangable? I'm not a marine biologist!!! I can't take this pressure!!!
So we will proceed to the kitchen instead. I'm comfy there.
Now, many recipes will tell you to tenderize the snail meat (by pounding on it with a meat tenderizer or a hammer or rolling pin) or slice it really thinly so it won't be chewy. And that's what we always used to do. And you know what? The meat was still chewy. We ate it anyway, because snail salad is yummy. But still.
Anyway, earlier this summer Bill was buying something at this little tiny shellfish place and he overheard this bit of advise regarding the cooking of conch or snails:
Cook them a long, long time.
Oh. Okay. So we tried that - again, earlier this summer - and it worked! The snail meat was TENDER! Hooray!!
Honestly? It was one of the culinary highlights of the summer for us. We're weird like that.
So I put these conch or snails or whelk in a pot, covered them with water, brought them to a boil, dropped the temp so they were at a good simmer, and cooked them. For an hour and a half, or so. Yeah, it's a long time, and yeah, it was 90 degrees and humid to begin with so you can imagine how hot and humid my kitchen became...and yeah, maybe it's not a floral scent.
Snail salad is yummy.
So the snails cooked, and then I took them out of the pot and put them in a bowl so they could cool a bit before I touched them.
And then it was time to pull them from their shells and clean them.
I had Bill do the first one - I haven't actually done this part before, oddly enough.
He made it look very simple.
I'll do my best to do the same.
First, you start with your conch, whelk, snail, whatever you call it. Cooked and cooled enough so you can handle it.
Next, you take a fork and poke it into the snail meat, just behind the operculum, or "little lid," which you can see in the picture above - it's a paler gray than the meat. And it's stiff, like a thin piece of shell. But not as brittle. More like a fingernail. Anyway, you get the fork in there, and start to pull.
Keep pulling gently, and soon the whole thing should pop out.
Okay, I understand if you're saying "YICK!" just about now. It is kind of yicky. But hey, it's a little living creature (or was) and so it's got all sorts of icky innards. You get used to it.
Here (below), for example, you can see the gills. That line of kind of frilly, feathery looking stuff. Just like fish have. Cool, huh?
Anyway, you remove all the guts and innards - pretty much anything really squishy.
For example, in the picture below, the two pieces on the left are what you keep, and the stuff on the right is what you can toss. Or, at least, that's how we do it. The two pieces on the left are actually the main muscle of the snail body, cut in half.
And hey! Look! The operculum! (My new favorite word, apparently.)
I was kind of fasincated by the last bit of the stomach or whatever squishiness this is - you can tell by the tight spiral that it was way inside the spiral of the shell...it's pretty. In a gray, gutty sort of way.
Okay, one last innard picture - this was the only one I pulled out that didn't break.
Okay, so once you've got the firm meat separated from the squishy guts, you'll probably need to rinse the meat off. Partly because of any residual squish, but also because this is a creature that lives on the bottom of the ocean, and just like you when you're frolicking on the beach, it tends to get sandy.
So rinse it well, especially the darker, outer parts, which are more likely to come in contact with the sand.
Pat it dry with a towel, and then, with a mandoline or a nice sharp knife, slice the snail meat into thin strips and put them in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and some cider vinegar. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper.
Now the rest is up to you. If you've got fresh herbs growing in a garden or in a pot on your patio, go snip some. You could grate a bit of lemon zest. You could add a bit of balsamic vinegar, too, if you'd like. For mine, I chopped up some tarragon, some oregano, and some basil, and a scallion. Taste as you go. You could chop some celery too, if you wanted...maybe red onion instead of a scallion. Go nuts - add some olives! Capers! Whatever makes you happy.
Once you're done with that, mix it well, cover with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for a couple of hours (if you have the time available). Then, before you serve it, give it another good stir and taste it one more time. Add whatever it needs (usually a teeny bit more salt).
Unfortunately, Alex and Julia like this, too.
So we're forced to share.