Squid, Moon Snails & Whelks: Ocean Treasures You Can Gather and Cook Yourself
When I was first introduced to cooking unusual specimens from the sea, I was living in a house overlooking Cape Cod Bay. My home and the beach together made up a typical Cape Cod setting; I could walk for miles along the sandy beach, pick mussels—even periwinkles—off the rocks, and harvest lobsters in my pots. I remember one day in particular. It was an early spring afternoon, and I needed to clear my head of the work I was doing, so I headed down to the beach. In front of me was a blanket of white, flopping squid covering most of the beach up to the tide line. For several minutes I stood there bewildered, taking in this unusual sight. Completely baffled, I kept thinking what made this rare event occur?
It didn’t take long to shift gears. Until that point, I had never had the opportunity to cook squid or, as they are known in Italian, calamari. This was an opportunity at hand. I ran back to the house, grabbed a large bowl and headed back to the beach to gather the freshest catch of squid I probably would ever eat.
Back home, I pulled out a few cookbooks and started my journey into calamari cuisine, which began with cleaning and cooking the rubbery creatures, an activity that is definitely not for the faint of heart. I never found out what caused them to wash up that early spring day, and it didn’t happen again while I lived there.
It wasn’t long after this episode that moon snails showed up in my lobster traps. They looked like the escargots I ate in restaurants, so why not see what they tasted like? Sure enough, they were edible (my recipe follows).
And there’s more. On trips to a strip of beautiful beach past Tulum in Mexico I used to get beautiful, fresh fish from local fishermen as they passed by the place where I was staying. Among their catch was fresh conch. I bought it a few times and prepared it ceviche style, allowing the raw mollusks to “cook” in the acid from a simple citrus marinade, and experimented with a few other preparations as well.
Back home, it turns out we have our own kind of conch called whelks, mostly on the Cape’s north side. And yes, these creatures are also edible. You can harvest them when you go clamming. They make wonderful fritters and they are free!
Recently I was surprised to discover local whelk on the menu from spring through fall at Naked Oyster on Main Street in Hyannis. Owner Florence Lowell buys it from Les Hemmila of Barnstable Sea Farms and prepares it very simply. “We pound the conch very thin, bread it and sauté it in a medium-hot pan, one minute on each side. The conch is removed from the pan and a pinch of garlic is added, cooked for a second, then the pan is deglazed with white wine and cold butter. The conch is plated and the sauce is poured over it, sprinkled with fresh parsley and served.”
According to Les, whelk is a predator that feasts on clams and oysters. It is now law that when whelks are found, shellfish growers must throw them above the waterline. Moon snails are another predator that feasts on shellfish, especially steamer clams. They can devastate a clam bed quickly. Tom Marcotti, Shellfish Warden for the Town of Barnstable, validated Les’s assertion. (He also directed me to the best place to harvest razor clams.)
Squid, moon snails and whelk are found mostly in the spring on Cape Cod. Depending on your town, licenses are required for harvesting shellfish. Whelk and moon snails, however, are exceptions. They can be taken from the sea without a license. So the next time you are harvesting shellfish for dinner, think outside the bucket and seek out some of these unexpected delicacies from the sea.
Fritters are great for lunch on the deck, served with a fresh garden salad and a cold glass of Cape Cod Beer.
Yields about 20 fritters.
- 2-3 whelks to make 1 cup minced whelk meat
- 2 cups dry white wine
- ½ cup juice from steaming whelk
- ¼ cup milk
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1½ cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon milk, optional
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Put the whelks in a medium saucepan with wine. Cover and steam for 15-20 minutes. Let cool, remove whelks from shell and cut the round intestinal tract out and discard. Grind in hand or electric grinder. Do not use a food processor, or you will make mush!
- In a medium bowl whisk together the steaming whelk juice, milk and 2 egg yolks until well combined. Stir in the minced whelk.
- In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and cayenne pepper. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet.
- Beat the 4 egg whites until light and fluffy, but not stiff. Fold the egg whites gently into the batter. If batter is too thick, add a little milk before folding in the egg whites.
- Put 2 cups of oil in a deep fry skillet (I use a 8½ x 3½-inch iron skillet) and heat to 375°. When hot, drop batter by spoonfuls into the oil, turning once with tongs or a slotted spoon until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
- Serve immediately with your favorite tartar or remoulade sauce and wedges of lemons.
Pair this recipe with: Todd Marcus of Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis suggests the IPA (India Pale Ale) with the fritters because of its citrus characteristics. It pairs well with fried, spicy or creamy foods and is a perfect palate cleanser.
Moon snails can be found on the sand flats at low tide, where they burrow in the sand like moles. When harvesting the moon snails, seek out the smaller ones—three-quarters to one inch in diameter. At home, rinse them off to get rid of sand, place in a saucepan with 1 cup of dry white wine, cover and steam for 25 minutes. After they are cooked, place them in a bowl under cold running water to cool. Pick the snail out of its shell, cut off the stomach at the back end and discard. Split the belly to clean, and rinse out the intestinal tract under running water. Pound each snail with the back of a clever or wooden mallet to tenderize the meat, being careful not to pulverize or mash it. Meanwhile, boil the empty shells in a pot of water with ¼ cup of baking soda for 20 to 25 minutes. This will clean the shells.
Serves 4 to 6.
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 small shallot, finely minced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Dry vermouth
- 12 to 16 moon snails, cooked as above
- Combine first five ingredients in a medium bowl and mix until well combined.
- Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Soak the snails in vermouth for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Put about 1 teaspoon of the butter mixture in each shell, followed by a snail and more butter, pressing everything into the shell. At this point you may bake them, refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
- When ready to cook, place in a sectional snail dish for baking. If this is not available, use a baking dish with crumpled aluminum foil to hold and support the snails while baking.
- Preheat oven to 400° and bake 10 to 15 minutes until butter is melted and bubbling.
- Serve immediately with a crusty hot baguette.
Pair this recipe with: Justin Fickin at Orleans Wine & Spirits recommends 2009 La Bastide Saint Dominique Côtes du Rhône Blanc–Rhône. This wine is extraordinarily fresh, exotic and lively with plenty of flavors of pineapple, ripe peach and citrus fruit. Suggested Retail Price: $18.99.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as appetizers.
- Olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 (4-ounce) can Italian tomato sauce
- Several fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper or to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 large squid or 6 small, cleaned and prepared as above
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- Finely chopped squid tentacles
- Butter and oil for sautéing
- ¼ cup dry white wine for deglazing the pan
Preparing the Squid for Cooking
- I place the squid on sheets of double newspaper on the counter. First grasp the head part, with tentacles firmly in hand, and pull the head from the body sac. Discard intestines and all internal organs. If you are adventurous you may want to save the ink sac for use in squid pasta, soups or stews.
- Cut off the fins and set aside. Cut the tentacles just above the eyes, squeeze out the beak at the base of the tentacles. Pull out the long, feather-shaped, transparent quill from the body sac and discard. Using a knife, scrape off the spotted purplish membranes. Rinse under cold water to remove all grit and tissue from the squid, and turn body sac inside out while washing. If you feel this process is too difficult, you can buy clean, whole, fresh squid at Joe’s Lobster Mart on the Canal in Sandwich.
To make the sauce, pour enough olive oil into a medium saucepan to cover bottom. Place over medium-high heat, add garlic and stir 30 seconds; do not burn. Add the wine and cook five minutes. Add the tomato sauce, basil, oregano, parsley, red pepper and bay leaves. Simmer uncovered until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally, about 35 to 45 minutes.
While sauce is cooking prepare the squid. In a medium bowl mix breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan, olive oil, melted butter and squid tentacles, tossing well so it holds together. Stuff the bodies of the squid with the mixture and close the ends with toothpicks.
Melt the butter with a small amount of oil in a skillet large enough to hold all the squid. When hot, sauté the squid until lightly brown.
Transfer squid to the tomato sauce. Add the wine to the pan, stirring for a few minutes then add the liquid to the tomato sauce. Simmer the squid for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce will thicken.
Serve over rice or pasta or even over sautéed dandelions.
Pair this recipe with: Justin suggests 2008 Antonelli San Marco “Baoicco” Umbria Rosso IGT–Umbria. This wine is brilliant ruby red in color with purplish hues and a pleasant and fresh finish. Suggested Retail Price: $15.99.
On the beach where the squid washed up, were also an abundance of different seaweeds. One was Irish moss. In my research, I found it sometimes can be used like gelatin or cornstarch. Here is a light, dessert that can be served anytime. Gather the white, sometimes slightly purple, moss usually in the spring, summer and fall, rinse it in cold water to get rid of the sand, place on paper towels to dry and put it in a covered jar until ready to use.
Depending on the season, I either fold raspberries or other fruits into blancmange. I also like to serve it plain with pureed fruit over the top.
Serves 4 to 6.
- ½ cup firmly packed Irish moss
- 1 quart milk*
- ½ cup sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1½ teaspoons vanilla
- 1 pint fresh seasonal fruit like raspberries, blueberries or strawberries
If using fresh Irish moss, rinse several times in cold water to get rid of the sand, then drain. Place the moss and milk in the top of a double boiler and stir in the sugar and salt. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not cook longer or the pudding will be too thick. Strain in the cheesecloth and stir in vanilla. Allow to partially cool.
As the blancmange starts to thicken, gently fold in the fruit if using. Pour the mixture into a 1½-quart mold or four 1-cup molds and chill in refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
Unmold and serve with pureed fruit.
* For a richer dessert substitute light cream for the milk.
Pair this recipe with: Justin suggests 2009 Boeri Alfonso “Ribota” Moscato d’Asti DOCG–Piedmont. Great as an aperitif, it is a PERFECT pairing with lighter desserts. Suggested Retail Price: $16.99.
All wines recommended in this article are imported exclusively by Cape Cod Wholesale Wine & Spirits and are available at finer restaurants and wine shops throughout Cape Cod, including Orleans Wine & Spirits.