A ray of sun on grey December day can be found in the pages of My Key West Kitchen (Kyle Books, October 2012) by father and son team of Norman and Justin Van Aken.
CONCH SALAD, MAN! (P.28)
“Hey. Hey. I’m Frank, the Conch Salad Man. I’ll sell you the world’s best conch salad!” He was holding a huge white pickle bucket brimming with his conch salad. With no more explanation than that, he reached in and gave me a paper cup full. I tipped back a mixture of finely diced conch, tomatoes, red onions, Scotch bonnets, bell peppers, celery, citrus juices and herbs. The flavors of the sea were in there, too. Living in Key West was my culinary university; I never needed more formal training. The place was filled with honest, in-your-face flavors that came from the Cuban, Bahamian and African-American residents and wanderers who passed through. I didn’t move to Key West to re-invent the cuisine—I came to find a home. In the process, I found a path to both. In this recipe, you will taste the foundation of each.
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 pound cleaned fresh conch, diced
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 European (hothouse) cucumber, peeled and
1/2 yellow bell pepper, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, minced
1/4 red onion, minced
1/2 cup diced fresh tomato
1/4 ripe Florida avocado, diced, or 1/2 ripe Haas avocado (optional)
Combine all of the ingredients except the tomato and avocado in a large bowl. Stir and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to develop.
To serve, fold in the tomato and avocado. Transfer to 4 chilled glasses or serving bowls.
Ingredient Note: Those of us who have lived in South Florida for some time may remember when conch, freshly harvested from the sea, was readily available in grocery stores and fish markets. My first recollection of conch was watching young boys pulling them up onto the pier at Higgs Beach in Key West. A few weeks later, I learned to prepare a truly authentic Bahamian-style conch chowder using giant conch, or Strombus gigas Linnaeus, a mollusk that possesses a large “foot.”
They meander around on the ocean floor like aquatic peg-leg pirates, “jumping” and rotating to get food. The Bahamians taught us many ways to use this tasty creature and you can still sample fresh conch fritters, cracked conch, conch chowder and even conch carpaccio in Key West. If conch is unavailable, you may easily substitute shrimp in this salad recipe.
(* Recipe from My Key West Kitchen -Kyle Books, October 2012- by Norman and Justin Van Aken, all rights reserved, photography by Penny De Los Santos)