Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
May contain references to mollusk body parts; reader discretion advised
This is a column about conch salad and basil lemonade.
Conch salad, because I’m writing this on an airplane en route back to the Valley from the Bahamas, where I have spent four days bonefishing and eating, yup, conch salad.
Basil lemonade, because that is what I had intended to write about originally, and because--let’s face it--conch is not exactly plentiful in the Kyrene Corridor.
Conch (pronounced konk) is a pretty interesting invertebrate, as I discovered in The Conch Book: All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Queen Conch, From Gestation to Gastronomy, by Dee Carstarphen.
It is a mollusk, and the inhabitant of those beautiful, pink-lipped spiral shells that can be held to the ear to “listen to the ocean.”
The species referred to as “conch” in the Bahamas is the queen conch, Strombus gigas. At maturity, its shell measures about eight to 12 inches. It can weigh up to five pounds.
That makes it a pretty big snail--and a snail is essentially what this creature is, with one big, muscular foot that it uses to hump along the ocean floor.
It feeds on algae. Its anus is located directly above its mouth. Just out of the shell, it is covered with what Carstarphen describes as “a sticky, gelatinous slime.”
Well, you should be, because conch makes exceptionally good eating. Slightly chewy, with a sweetish taste reminiscent of clams or abalone, conch is omnipresent in the Bahamas: as deep-fried “cracked conch,” conch curry and, of course, conch salad.
I ate conch salad at a little outdoor stand in Port Lucaya, where a local prepared it from scratch under conditions of dubious hygiene. (It’s a testament to outdoor vendors everywhere that I returned home with health intact.)
He started with a whole shell, which he cracked and cleaned with surgical efficiency. I learned afterward that this is a tricky skill to master; it involves knocking a hole in the spire, then precisely severing the tendon that anchors the animal in place.
The end result was a quivery, snot-colored blob on his chopping board. It was hard for me to follow what came next, but if The Conch Book is to be believed, he deftly cut away the guts and eye stalks, stripped off the skin, and pared away most of the conch’s orange mantle.
Then he pounded the remaining muscle and chopped it into small pieces. These he combined with chopped tomato and onion (there might have been some celery in there, too), fresh lime juice and orange juice, salt and as much finely diced hot pepper as the customer asked for.
Voila: conch salad. It’s addictive stuff. The next time you’re in the islands, don’t miss it.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in the islands; you’re probably baking away in our proverbial “dry heat.”
So here’s something to slake your thirst: basil lemonade. It’s not as strange as it sounds, and it’s a great beverage for the Fourth of July.
Take a generous ½ cup of rinsed, lightly packed fresh basil leaves and combine them in a 1-quart measuring cup or bowl with three tablespoons of sugar (or more to taste).
Use a wooden cooking spoon to “muddle” the leaves and sugar; that is, pound them gently until the basil is pretty well crushed.
Add ½ cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice and stir this mixture for about a minute. Now strain it to get about ½ cup of a pretty green concentrate.
Divide this concentrate between four glasses and top off with sparkling water and ice.
It’s different, it’s refreshing and I bet it would be great with conch salad.