Monday, April 6, 2015

Key West Conch Chowder - Conch Republic Chowder!

     Conch Republic Chowder!
     Long ago, the Florida Keys and Caribbean Islands were a hostile place to be.  Food sources were restricted to what could be gathered locally and only items that had a long shelf life were shipped in.  Local islanders did have one easy to harvest item that never seemed to be in short supply.  Conch was easy to gather along the beach passes where tidal currents stirred up food for these shellfish.  Conch was served for many meals each week, because often there was no other choice.  

     Conch Chowder originated somewhere in the Caribbean and many say that the Bahamas are the most likely place.  Fishermen in the Caribbean worked the entire region, including the Florida Keys, the Florida Straits and the Gulf Of Mexico.  
     Many recipes in this region share similar ingredients and cooking styles.  When something tastes good, the recipe gets around.  Caribbean fishermen sure did have a way of spreading good seafood cooking ideas throughout the islands in this vast fishery.

     The Florida Keys were not always accessible by car and there was no such thing as refrigeration on these islands.  Durable food items like potatoes, canned tomatoes, peppers and hard vegetables were just about the only kinds of food that were brought onshore by boat.  
     The Florida Keys once were plentiful with native conch and they were easier to harvest than clams or oysters.  Conch were a main staple in Key West and conch chowder became a tradition.  
     Because of the influence of conch in Key West culture, Key West is often referred to as being the Conch Republic.  Citizens of the Conch Republic certainly live a different lifestyle.  The laws of the state of Florida or the USA really do not apply to the needs of Conch Republic citizens in many cases.  In the past, the Conch Republic has organized many attempts to secede from the union and become a nation of its own, just like it always used to be.  Key West Conch Chowder is a symbol of Conch Republic independence.      
     Since conch requires some stewing time to become tender, making a chowder with conch has always been the best option.  Chowders originated in France long ago.  The original French chowders were made with locally gathered seafood and salt cured pork.  The early French chowders were like a hearty seafood broth soup.  Sometimes the broth was thickened and local herbs were part of the recipe.  
     Portuguese fishermen also lay claim to the origin of chowder.  Portuguese Caldeirada is a seafood stew that has simple origins, just like French chowder.  After the Americas were discovered, Portuguese Caldeirada recipes made use of many new world ingredients, like chile peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.  Portuguese Caldeirada soon looked like the old traditional seafood stews that Natives of the Americas had been making for thousands of years.  
     Portuguese Caldeirada style seafood cooking influences ended up spreading everywhere from the Caribbean to New England.  Clam or shellfish Caldierada recipes eventually became what is known as "red chowders."  
     Tomato and Spanish Paprika chowders are easier on the tummy in a hot climate than milk chowders.  On small Caribbean islands and in the Florida Keys, milk was not always an option anyway.  In the tropical humid heat of the Caribbean and Key West, red chowders are the natural choice.  
     Key West Conch Chowder is one of the classic original red chowders.  Conch Republic citizens are proud of this historic chowder and chefs in the entire Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico region know this recipe by heart.  The earliest Key West Conch Chowders were a simple conch, tomato and potato stew.  Eventually the Key West Conch Chowder recipes were refined and unique flavor characteristics were developed.  
     I was a chef in Florida for a long time and I have literally cooked tons of Key West Conch Chowder in restaurants.  My conch chowder recipe is refined and the ingredients reflect the historic tradition of this chowder.  Salt pork is not part of this recipe, because cooking oil was more common in the tropics.  Salt pork turns rancid in tropical heat and humidity, so it is not a traditional staple in this region.  Just like Bahama Chowders, mirepoix vegetables are part of the refined Key West Chowder recipe.  
     When cooking Key West Chowder, if independence is a choice ingredient, then by all means add it to the pot and stir it up good.  Independence is the single most important ingredient necessary for turning a Key West Chowder recipe into Conch Republic Chowder!  

     Conch Preparation:  
     This recipe yields enough conch for 3 1/2 cups of chowder.
     About 3 1/2 ounces to 5 ounces are needed per large bowl of chowder.  Harvesting live conch is now illegal in Florida.  However, conch is farmed in many regions around the globe.
     Frozen shelled conch is the best choice for conch chowder.  Frozen conch is available at seafood markets and Asian food markets, but it is rarely stocked in a standard grocery store.
     Pounding conch with a meat mallet is the old fashioned method for tenderizing conch.  The tenderized meat will need to be minced.  Pulsing the sliced conch in a food processor will tenderize and mince the conch all in one step.  A meat grinder does the same thing.     
     Step 1:  Select 3 1/2 to 5 ounces of shelled conch.
     Rinse any sand off of the conch meat under cold running water.  
     Trim off any pieces of broken shell that are attached to the meat.
     Step 2:  Cut the conch into thin slices.
     Tenderize each slice with a meat mallet.  
     Mince the conch meat.      
     After the conch is prepared, refrigerate the minced conch meat till it is needed.

     Conch Republic Chowder:
     This recipe yields 3 1/2 cups of Key West Conch Chowder!  
     Conch shrinks when it is cooked.  Tenderized minced conch meat requires some simmering time, but a conch chowder does not need to simmer all day.
     Conch will develop a nice broth flavor, but the flavor is usually too thin for a chowder.  Adding some shrimp stock or fumet beefs up the broth flavor.
     The broth should have a light body that keeps the ingredients in suspension, but the broth should not be thick.  A minimal amount of flour is added to soak up the excess oil and this roux gives the chowder a thin body.  
     Step 1:  Heat pot over medium heat.
     Add 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil.
     Add 1/2 teaspoon of minced garlic.
     Sauté till the garlic starts to turn a light golden color. 
     Step 2:  Add 3 1/2 to 5 ounces of minced tenderized conch meat or ground conch meat.
     Sauté till the the conch becomes fully cooked and any excess liquid evaporates.  (This only takes a minute or two.)  
     Step 3:  Add 1 teaspoon of flour, while stirring.
     Stir till the roux combines.
     Step 4:  Add 3 cups of water.
     Add 2 cups of shrimp stock or fumet.
     Add 1/2 cup of tomato puree.
     Add 1 small laurel leaf.
     Bring the liquid to a gentle boil.
     Step 5:  Reduce the temperature to low heat.
     Gently simmer and reduce the broth for 1 hour, till the conch starts to become tender.  Allow the broth to reduce to 4 1/4 cups in volume.  Only add water if necessary. 
     Step 6:  Add 2 tablespoons of minced onion.
     Add 2 tablespoons of diced carrot.
     Add 2 tablespoons of diced peeled celery.
     Add 1/2 teaspoon of minced seeded green jalapeño.
     Add 3/4 cup of diced peeled russet potato. 
     Add 1/4 cup of Canned Peeled Whole Plum Tomato that is seeded and diced.  
     Step 7:  Add 1 pinch of allspice.
     Add 1/4 teaspoon of oregano. 
     Add 1 pinch of marjoram.  
     Add 1 small pinch of thyme.
     Add 1 small pinch of ground celery seed.
     Add 1/4 teaspoon of coriander.
     Add 1 small pinch of nutmeg.
     Add 1 pinch of cayenne pepper.
     Add 1/2 teaspoon of Spanish Paprika.
     Add 1 small pinch of white pepper.
     Season with sea salt and black pepper.
     Add 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice.
     Step 8:  Raise the temperature to medium/medium high heat.
     Bring the chowder to a boil.
     Step 8:  Reduce the temperature to low heat.
     Gently simmer till the vegetables and potato are tender and the chowder reduces to about 3 1/2 cups in volume.
     Keep the chowder warm over very low heat.
     Step 9:  Add 2 pinches of minced Italian Parsley just before serving.
     Remove the laurel leaf and rinse it clean.  Set the laurel leaf aside.
     Ladle the Key West Conch Chowder into a large soup bowl.
     Garnish with an Italian Parsley sprig and the reserved laurel leaf.
     Serve with hot sauce, saltines or oyster crackers on the side!

     This is a great tasting Key West Conch Chowder!    

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