Thursday, February 24, 2011

Floribbean Conch Chowder and Fritters

Conch has had a profound influence on the Florida Keys. Natives of Key West and the Bahamas proudly call themselves conchs, and in the past, proud parents in Key West placed a conch shell on a stick in the front of their house to inform neighbors of a new born infant. 

In the early 1800s, people from the Bahamas began migrating to the Florida Keys, which explains why conch is so much a part of the Keys heritage. Once abundant in the Key, the Key's most famous shell — the Queen Conch — was banned from being harvested in the U.S. since the 1980's because its population has been so severely depleted. However, conch is still harvested elsewhere, especially in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, where it continues to be harvested and exported exported with government control. 

Conch had to be protected because it is the favorite food of many Caribbeans, where its a major food source. When prepared properly to soften the texture of the meat, many people consider conch to be among the choicest seafoods of the world. In the Florida Keys restaurants often will include on their menu conch fritters, conch seviche, conch salad, a marinated dish called cracked conch and of course the ever popular conch chowder. This wonderful Conch recipe is a blend of Bahamian and South Florida culture.

Florida Conch Chowder
Serves 6-8

4 large diced tomatoes
1 medium diced onion
6 small minced green onions
2 cloves of fresh minced garlic
2 stalks diced celery
2 large diced carrots
1 chopped red bell pepper
1 medium diced potato
6-8 sprigs of chopped parsley
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 tsp of ground allspice
3 bay leaves
1 16-oz can of clam juice
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 cups cold water
1 lb cleaned and chopped conch meat
3 slices of crisp bacon
1/4 cup of white wine
Juice of 1 fresh lime
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

In a large pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and the fat is rendered, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

In the center of a 6-inch square piece of cheesecloth, place the allspice, bay leaves, and thyme. Draw up the sides to form a pouch and tie with kitchen twine to form a bouquet garni. To the fat in the pan, add the onions, celery, carrots, potatoes, parsley, and bell peppers and cook over medium-high heat until soft, about 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the hot pepper and garlic and cook while stirring for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook stirring for 2 minutes. Then add the clam juice, water and potatoes and bring to a boil. Add the bouquet garni, reduce the heat to simmer, and stir occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes. Add the conch and cook until the meat is tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove pot from the heat and discard the bouquet garni. Add the lime juice and parsley, stir to combine and adjust the seasoning to taste. Ladle into bowls with a platter of conch fritters on the side.

COOK'S NOTE: For some additional heat and Spice, try the following: 1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or Cayenne pepper to taste, 1 jalapeno or habenero pepper, seeded and diced! You can find frozen Conch meat at Mike's at The St. Lawrence Market and Diana's Seafood in Toronto.

Floribbean Conch Fritters
Makes about 42 fritters

2 tsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup finely chopped white onions
2 tbsp finely chopped red bell peppers
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp minced jalapeno peppers
1/4 tsp cayenne
2 cups steamed or par-boiled and finely diced conch meat, about 1 pound
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup whole milk
Dash hot red pepper sauce
1 tbsp chopped parsley leaves
Vegetable oil, for frying

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell peppers, garlic, peppers, and cayenne and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the conch and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.

Into a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the egg, milk, and pepper sauce and mix to make a thick batter. Stir in the parsley and the cooled conch mixture.

In a large deep saute pan or cast iron skillet, heat enough oil to come 2 to 3 inches up the sides of the pan to 350°F.

Drop the batter, a heaping tablespoon at a time, into the oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve hot as an appetizer with spicy chipotle mayonnaise or with a steaming bowl of Conch Chowder.