The taste of abalone is a bit like a cross between clams and calamari, only sweeter and cleaner. In much of the world it’s considered a delicacy; Asia in particular consumes huge numbers of farmed abalone cooked every possible way. But in the United it’s virtually impossible to find; wild stocks are virtually extinct and commercially farmed abalone steaks are pretty pricey. I’ve only eaten abalone a handful of times, and cooked it exactly twice, this being time number two.
Once plentiful, fresh abalone is virtually impossible to find. When I lived in Half Moon Bay, my good friend Brian, who occasionally dove for the briny molluscs plucked a big one for me and demonstrated how to break it down. It was a dark and slimy, rock-like thing, about nine inches in length, like some prehistoric clam with a single shell and a huge, sucker-like “foot”. Brian had to free-dive for the abalone, which is now one of only two permitted foraging methods (as well as shore-picking) after decades of lawless commercial harvesting had decimated the California red abalone stocks.
|Panko-crusted and deep fried abalone!|
Using a metal bar, Brian pried the big meaty body out of the shell and proceeded to trim off the guts, slice off the skirt, and trim off the black outer skin of the body. What was left was a grayish-white hunk of giant snail flesh (Yes, it’s a kind of big, underwater snail.). He cleaned out the shell, revealing the stunning, whorled iridescence of the mother-of-pearl inlay and the row of gradually enlarging air vents running along one side of the shell. Absolutely beautiful. When I asked if I could have the shell, Brian demurred, saying he needed it for an ashtray.
Meanwhile, with a filleting knife I sliced white, rubbery slabs from the meat and pounded them very thin, probably an eighth-to-a-quarter-inch thick. I dredged them briefly in milk and coated them with seasoned flour. I quickly fried ’em up in some hot butter and topped with a squeeze of lemon. An Anchor Steam Beer washed it down. That was pretty damn tasty, that abalone. It was tender, fresh, and redolent of sweet seawater.
|Three New Zealand abalone, upside-down with their feet in the air.|
So when I saw at the Santa Monica Seafood Market frozen baby abalone from New Zealand I recalled that excellent, super-fresh abalone that Brian brought to the surface and how it sizzled when it hit the hot butter. I bought three, still unsure what to do with them and uncertain if I’d remember how to break them down. It turned out that I did; it wasn’t hard to do and the end result was a very yummy little appetizer.
|The blackish viscera (guts) must be trimmed off.|
|Stage one, complete. Guts removed.|
These abalone were three-to-four inches in length and pretty small, very unlike the behemoth I’d cooked and eaten previously. I popped them out of the shell easily enough with a large soup spoon. I scrubbed off the shells and rinsed off the meat. I put the shells in my back courtyard to sanitize in the hot sun, and the meat I looked at with a bit of uncertainty, unsure how to proceed as I sought to remember every detail of the previous abalone. I took out a thin, strong, and very sharp utility knife and at first tentatively, and then with a quickly-increasing confidence, I trimmed around the white “scallop” of the body and deftly cut loose the viscera, which I discarded.
|Cutting the skirt off.|
|Trimming off that black crap.|
I then trimmed off the frilly “skirt” and cut off as much of the black exterior that I could, shaving as little off as I could. Finally with a clean, abrasive scouring pad I scrubbed any remaining black gunk off under cold running water. I was left with three molluscy chunks of whitish flesh. This may sound strange, but that’s when I started getting excited, when I realized that these weird, foot-shaped chunks of rubbery flesh would make good, nay, great food.
|Three hunks of abalone flesh.|
I cut each abalone into thin slices and then pounded them gently with the “toothed”, tenderizing side of a meat mallet. I suspected that these tender young abalone wouldn’t require the pounding that their much larger cousin did, but I wanted to “texturize” the smooth meat enough to give the breadcrumb coating I planned something to cling to.
|One abalone sliced into thin slabs.|
|I pounded the abalone slices to give them a little texture.|
After pounding the slices I soaked them in milk for about an hour. In the meanwhile I made a quick dipping sauce by whisking together a 1/2 cup of mayo, a tablespoon of lemon juice, a teaspoon of sriracha, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a pinch of Old Bay Seasoning. I made a breadcrumb coating of half panko flakes and half all-purpose flour, which I seasoned with some salt and pepper.
I put fresh vegetable oil in my fryer and set it to 375 degrees F. When the oil was hot I dredged the milky slices of abalone into the flour and breadcrumb mixture, pressing the panko into the slices to adhere. I fried them in the hot oil for less than one minute, until they were golden brown.
The abalone was delicious! It was like the tenderest calamari you’ve ever had, but sweeter with a mild, clam-like flavor. The sauce was nice but not really necessary; a squeeze of lemon was accompaniment enough. I could see why the abalone had become so popular that unregulated harvesting had essentially killed off the wild populations. It’s a pathetic shame that it took near-extinction for people to understand that they would most likely never eat another abalone.
If you get a chance, I recommend that you try abalone some time. It’s pretty expensive. My little appetizer cost $27! And it’s pretty labor-intensive, as you can see. But for me it was worth it. Because money and labor is no obstacle for someone who is determined to cook and eat just about everything, someone as OMNIVOROUS as I am.
|You get lovely souvenirs from the abalone. The shells are truly beautiful.|