Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wild Abalone

I paid a visit to Catalina Offshore Products today to buy black cod for a dinner party tomorrow night. But, I seem to have abundant good luck with timing because all the guys at the warehouse were circled around a new delivery of wild-caught abalone from Baja.

Now people who have lived on the coast of California may have childhood memories of catching abalone but recently local red abalone has been suffering from withering abalone syndrome, a disease that attack's the mollusk's digestive track. The bacterium inhibits the production of digestive enzymes and to keep from starving, the abalone consumes its own body mass, which makes its "foot" wither (hence the name) and atrophy. That, in turn, keeps it from being able to adhere to rocks and makes it more vulnerable to predators or simply starvation.

So, more common now is commercially farmed abalone. In Baja California, withering abalone syndrome hasn't been an issue, according to Catalina Offshore Products' Dan Nattrass, but China has been a huge customer and that's what the Mexican market has been catering to. They buy it canned and frozen for import. But, says Nattrass, China has been backing off and now the Mexican government has opened up the live production market to the U.S., if only in small amounts.

While most of us have experienced abalone as a pounded out steak, Nattrass had a transformative encounter in Baja in which the fisherman cleaned the mollusk, then scored the muscle like a mango, sprinkled it with salt, drizzled lime juice and chile sauce on it, and then downed it raw.

Lucky me, as I said. Nattrass just had to replicate it at the warehouse. So, he picked one from a huge assortment that were being salted to send them to their deaths and preserve them.

He then pulled it out of that gorgeous irridescent shell and started pulling off the guts and cleaning it.

Then came trimming. There's a fringe of tissue around the body that Nattrass cut away. He says it's great to include in chowder.

I won't share the photo of the mouth. We'll just move on to the now beautifully cleaned meat. This is the point at which it's usually pounded to remove the chewy toughness.

But, watch how Nattrass scores it.

He then pulled apart the pieces. There was no lime in the office but there were oranges and the juice actually worked very well with the meat, the sea salt he sprinkled on, and then the dabs of sriracha sauce he topped it with. Yes, the meat is chewy but it's sweet and it was a delightful little mouth surprise.

Catalina Offshore Products is located at 5202 Lovelock St. just off Morena Blvd.

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  1. Raw??? My, you're brave! How great that you got to be there to see the abalone. My Dad used to dive with friends when he lived in Northern California & they'd bring back tons of abalone. He used to grill it for us. LOVED it!

  2. Yum! I remember eating abalone as a kid, especially when the Mexican side of the family headed down to Rosarito to camp on the beach. So good!

  3. Isn't serendipity a wonderful thing? Thanks to you we all got to enjoy it.

    As a young man my father Harry used to free dive for abalone off La Jolla. As a treat I bought him some abalone in the early 90s. Even then I think it was $45 a pound, wow!

    Conch meat is prepared much the same way on dive boats and day sailing trips in the Caribbean. Conch is far more white, almost like calamari. It's delicious.

  4. All these memories! And, I didn't think I was brave. I eat sushi and sashimi. What's the difference? It was delicious!