Article and Recipe contributed by C. Jodlowski
Growing up in the Northeast, I’ve always had this feeling that things from other places were exotic simply because they came from somewhere else. By their very virtue of being “exotic” they were, by default, “better.” We had plenty of decent fishing around us and spent summers wandering ponds chasing bass and trout. But as I’d heard it, down south they had huge bass and out in the Rockies there were remote ponds teaming with native trout. I’d floated over shoals gaming stripers, but tarpon in the Keys…that’s where it was at. We had deer, they had elk. We had hills, they had mountains.
I spent a lot of time snorkeling in those ponds watching the bass float still amongst drowned trees. On vacation I’d pack my up my gear to explore the bays and inlets along the New England shores. A crab here, a whelk there. A flounder under the sand. In college I had the opportunity to take Scuba as a class. I was going to get Phys Ed credit to learn to dive. Really dive. To take the “final exam” – the qualifying open water dives – each student had to choose one of two trips. Either go up to Gloucester, Massachusetts to dive the muddy bottom among the sea robins and wolffish. Or. . .for a hundred bucks more, take a bus ride to the Florida Keys. Both trips were in late November.
To this day, I can see every detail of those reefs. The colors. The life. The activity. The thing is, when I got back to life as an even poorer college kid I didn’t have the cash to get myself to other exotic locations and I just couldn’t bring myself to go through all that effort to dive the murky browns of the northeast again. So my mask and fins went into the attic and there they sat.
As my kids get older, I get excited to introduce them to all the types of fun I had as a kid. So there my son and I were, out in a cold, tide-driven bay hovering over the shallow bottom. We watched dark mottled spider crabs fend us off as we coasted over, the black eel grass lean with the current and the occasional white glint of a quahog’s point jutting from sand (which I mentally marked for clamming later). I picked up a knobbed whelk that was working its way into a quahog to show my son the sheer muscular force with which they were able to pry themselves into the most resolute of shellfish.
Back on the beach he asked me “Was that a conch?”
“No, a whelk.” I corrected him. “They’re like conch but conch are vegetarian and whelks eat shellfish.”
“Can you eat them like conchs?” he asked
That’s my boy. Always considering the food angle. But the truth is, I didn’t know. I’d never even wondered.
When we got back to the house I looked it up. It turns out not only can you eat them, around Cape Cod alone whelks comprise the largest single fishery. Not lobsters. Not clams. Not cod. Whelk. 2.6 million pounds of it every year. Nearly all of which is shipped overseas because there’s simply not a market for it in the U.S.
Having traveled to the Caribbean, I’ve eaten conch in, well, everything. And overpaid for it. But I’d happily done so because I was far from home and it was exotic. Yet here I was in my own back yard where very nearly the same thing was being harvested and shipped somewhere else where it was happily accepted because it was from far away, and therefore exotic.
So back to the bay we went (after checking our local shellfish regulations as well), this time with masks, fins and mesh bags.
I had a few ideas in mind but I hit up a culinary-minded friend for some ideas. We went back and forth until he came up with an almost winner. Whelk puttanesca over fresh caught striper. I say “almost” winner because there was a hitch in that plan: the striper. It was mid-august and he might as well have suggested I serve my sauce over grilled dodo. We didn’t have striper. But we did have pasta and it being puttanesca’s natural environment, I was ok with that.
Puttanesca is a kind of “kitchen sink” sauce that typically uses the strong flavor of anchovies to carry it. It turns out that the cooked whelk didn’t have the presence to fill that role. What it did have, however, was a good solid texture to stand out in a bowl full of softer ingredients making the whole thing feel more like a meal. A beautiful, exotic, locally gathered meal.
- 12 channel or knobbed whelk, steamed and removed from shell (See below)
- 3 T olive oil
- 1 head of garlic, peeled and chopped
- Half a yellow onion, sliced into strips
- 1 14 oz can of marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
- 1 cup of oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved
- T capers, drained
- 1/2 cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained and cut into strips
- 1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1 t fresh oregano, finely chopped
- 1 lb penne
- Place the whelk in a large pot, add 1 quart of water and cover.
- Over high heat, bring the pot to a boil and keep boiling for 10 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool. When the whelk are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the shell. To do so, hold the rounded end of the shell in the palm of your hand with the opening facing up and farthest from you. Carefully stick a fork down into the side of the opening closest to you and roll the shell away from the fork. The meat should slide right out.
- Once all the meat is out, trim it up. Each whelk will have a hard foot end and a digestive track that’s easily removed by squeezing the meat or cutting in half and scraping out. Cut away all the outer skin, areas around the digestive tract and foot. Once you see it all, it should be pretty apparent what you want to eat and what you don’t. When you’re done you should have a chunk of white meat remaining.
- Place a few chunks of meat in a zip lock bag and beat them fiercely with a meat tenderizer to soften them. Once all the meat has been pounded, roughly chop it.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the penne as directed to al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.
- In a 2 quart sauce pan, add the olive oil, garlic and onion and apply low heat.
- As the onion softens, add the sundried tomatoes, stir and heat for 3 minutes.
- Add the olives and artichoke hearts, stir and heat for another 3 minutes.
- Add the diced tomatoes and red wine and bring to a simmer
- Add the whelk, capers, the oregano, the pasta water and the pasta, mix to blend it all together and return to a simmer then turn off heat and serve.
(side note: cheese is, apparently a no-no on Italian seafood dishes. . .but I like it and so I shred a little sharp Italian cheese over mine.)
About the Author
Chris came to hunting later in life than most, but over the last 20 years he’s developed it from pastime to passion to way of life. He now hunts and cooks just about everything a season will allow and is always looking for the next adventure. Along with hunting, he fishes and wanders New York’s Hudson Valley and beyond gathering wild and regionally grown produce, living his belief that the very best food is local food. He enjoys spending time outdoors with his boys, teaching them self-reliance and sharing with them the joy of sitting down to a well-earned meal.