Every so often, it’s fun to do a chef profile for my Local Flavors column in the Tribune newspaper (San Luis Obispo County, California). I ask the chefs to pick a local and/or seasonal ingredient, explain why and how they’re using it in their menus, and how cooks at home might approach the product. Most recently, Chef Leonard Gentieu of Onboard Nautical Events in Morro Bay choose abalone!
Chef Leonard uses pre-tenderized product from The Abalone Farm, located just up the highway in Cayucos. Granted, this is a pricy product (figure about $100/pound, about $55 for four tenderized steaks), but if you realize the intensive, hands-on aquaculture that goes into raising these mollusks to market size, you’ll understand why.
As I wrote in an earlier column about The Abalone Farm, “The five-year process starts with a controlled spawning, after which the larvae are moved to special tanks where the water is changed twice daily. After that, the tiny abalones spend several months in hatchery tanks. When they’re about the size of a thumbnail, they’re moved to different tanks, and when they are about an inch in size, they get moved again to the final harvest tanks. The whole process takes five years before the abalone reach a viable size – about 3- 1/2 to 4-1/2 inches in length — thanks to their diet of locally harvested California kelp and a rich seaweed variety grown on-site at The Abalone Farm.”
Although this sounds like a process that might not be environmentally sound, farmed abalone is a sustainable aquaculture process and is listed as one of the “Best Choices” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List. Though I’m partial to California or U.S. sources, country of origin doesn’t matter as much as the farming method, which should be in contained systems, not farmed on the sea floor. The latter has a fairly destructive method of razing the ocean floor for the abalone seeds.
Abalone are also pretty low maintenance in terms of inflows and outflows. In California, the abalone are typically fed kelp harvested from just offshore, plus maybe an additional supplement such as algae or dulse, a sea vegetable similar to kelp. In terms of “outflows,” let’s just say that abalone are inherently very clean creatures.
Perhaps because it’s just an expensive product, many chefs are tempted to throw the cookbook at it, but Chef Leonard prefers a simple preparation of just crushed saltines, clarified butter, and lemon juice. Luckily for home cooks, that’s also an easy way to wow your guests. Just make sure you have everything ready ahead of time so you can essentially flash sauté it – you DON’T want to overcook it!
— Katy Budge