Conch chowder is to Key West what cioppino is to San Francisco. This pretty mollusk was so ubiquitous, so intertwined with the folklore and diet of Key Westers, that the people who were born and raised here became known as Conchs (Konks) back in the late 1800s. I can think of no other place where the populace has taken the name of a gastropod as a nickname for themselves, but we have and we're proud of it.
Conch meat has a rich, exotic clamlike taste and can be used in various ways. It is made into salads, fritters, and chowders. As for chowders, there are those devotees who favor a creamy version, and I'm beginning to hear of those who even include such refinements as hazelnuts! But my recipe is for those in the tomato-fanciers camp. And this is a dish made for people who like to be within walking distance of a beach. I like to think that suitable condiments are nothing more than a hot splash of Tobasco and the salty smell of the sea.
1/4 pound slab bacon, rind removed and diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 jalapeno peppers, seeds and stems removed, diced medium
1 large Spanish onion, peeled and diced medium
1/2 bunch celery, cleaned and diced medium
2 carrots, peeled and diced medium
1 green pepper, seeds and stem removed, diced medium
1 yellow pepper, seeds and stems removed, diced medium
2 banana peppers, seeds and stems removed, diced medium
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
10 small, new potatoes, peeled, diced medium, and reserved in water
1 quart peeled plum tomatoes, thoroughly crushed
1 quart tomato purée
3 bay leaves
One bunch each of fresh thyme, oregano, marjoram, and basil, tied in cheesecloth.
3 1/4 quarts fish stock
2 2/3 quarts bottled clam juice
2 1/2 pounds cleaned and ground conch meat (see Note below)
Tabasco sacue to taste
In a very large soup pot or dutch oven, render bacon fat with olive oil. When fat is rendered, add jalapeños, followed by all the vegetables up to but not including the potatoes. Sauté briskly. Add crushed red pepper. Add potatoes, then the tomatoes and tomato puré, being sure the plum tomatoes are well crushed. Reduce heat and add the bay leaves. Add the bouquet of herbs.
In a separate large pot, bring fish stock and clam juice to a boil and whisk in conch meat. Allow to boil once and quickly strain the clam and fish stock into the simmering soup, reserving conch meat for later. When potatoes are tender, whisk in reserved conch meat. Add Tabasco to taste, boil once, then serve, or chill for later use.
Note: Conch meat is almost always frozen. Try to buy Grade A conch and be sure to check for any "freezer burn". Do not buy the conch if you see ice crystals on the meat. Conch meat can be extremely tough, even if you dice it very small, so it needs to go through the medium-fine plate of a grinder. Also cut away any orange flaplike meat if that has not already been removed.
A German Riesling with great fruit and low alcohol: Robert Weil Estate Riesling habtrocken, Rheingau, 1997