For the abalone, its journey from native currency to disdained export to ocean delicacy has been fraught with derision, then frenzy. From the 1800s to the early 20th century, abalone meat was exported to China and Japan and its shells sent to Europe to be used in intricate inlays. There was no American market for abalone meat.
Then “Pop” Ernest Doelter taught American diners how to eat abalone. He pounded the abalone into steaks for his restaurant on the Monterey wharf and served them at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. With that exposure, abalone’s domestic popularity soared, bringing the edible gastropod to the brink of extinction.
Now, with commercial abalone fishing completely banned in California and sport abalone divers saddled with strict regulations, commercial abalone farming is taking off. And abalone is making a comeback, appearing on the menus of some of our area’s finest restaurants.
I recently had the opportunity to shuck it, pound it, cook it, and plate it under the tutelage of Executive Chef Justin Cogley during his “Monterey Bay Abalone” class.
Each month enthusiasts can attend culinary classes in the kitchen of Aubergine restaurant at L’Auberge hotel in Carmel. Cogley leads the series of savory classes, while Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza teaches the sweets. Previous offerings have included: The Mystery of Old World Grains; Plate Like a Professional; and Working with Raw Fish and Sake. This fall they offer: Adventures in Appetizers; Curds and Creams; and Savory Sauces – The Next Level. If my class was any indication, people come from far and wide to attend these two-hour culinary adventures.
While Cogley introduced himself to us newbies—there were more than a few class regulars—he offered us flutes of cava as well as still and sparkling water. Then we tied on aprons, took our places at a cutting board, and went right to work.
We shelled Tiger’s Eye beans, sliced kernels of fresh corn from the cobs and diced onions. We sampled oyster leaves—a salty variety of cress that grows near the sea—and fondled Turkish towel seaweed. Then Cogley talked to us about the Monterey Abalone Company. Here on the Monterey Bay, we are fortunate to have farmers whose operating philosophy is to duplicate the abalone’s natural environment as closely as possible. Trevor Fay and Art Seavey, co-owners of the Monterey Abalone Company, are hands-on in every phase of the cultivation and harvest. And their efforts have helped put farmed abalone on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Best Choice list. Aubergine just might be one of their largest customers, ordering between 200 and 300 abalone per week. At a year old, abalone are about the size of your thumbnail. Three years later, after feeding on fresh, hand- harvested giant kelp, abalone grow to about 3 inches across. That’s the ideal size, according to Cogley, any bigger and cost becomes an issue for the restaurants—and for the diners.
While our corn-bean sauce simmered on the stove, we began to work on our abalone. Here are the five easy steps…
Step One: Shuck
Cogley demonstrated, in one smooth motion, how to separate the mollusk from its shell. Our efforts weren’t quite as graceful, but we ended up with a stack of shells and a dozen abalone. So, I’d call that a success.
Step Two: Clean and Pound
We didn’t actually clean the abalone, Julian did that for us, but he did demonstrate how to pound them and we eagerly gave that a try after Cogley made the distinction between the ‘presentation side’ and the ‘other side.’ We pounded the other side with the spiked side of the mallet. Forty-five strikes was what one of my classmates counted during the demonstration. Then we flipped the abalone over, covered it with a towel, and pounded it again with the smooth side. Another forty-five times? We weren’t counting. We just pounded.
Step Three: Sous Vide
At that point, our abalone were vacuum-sealed for us to take home and we cooked abalone that Cogley and his crew had already prepped for final cooking. When I write ‘prepped for final cooking’, I mean they were cooked sous vide ahead of time. Sous vide is French for ‘under vacuum’ and describes a method of cooking in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches at precisely controlled temperatures. In this case, the abalone were sous vide’d at 140° F for 30 minutes prior to the final cooking.
Step Four: Pan-Fry
We heated unsalted butter in a pan and quickly pan-fried our abalone to give them a nice golden color. It only took about a minute on each side.
Step Five: Plate
We spooned a bed of corn and Tiger’s Eye beans onto the plate, laid our abalone on top, and garnished it with some sea lettuce, sea grass, oyster leaves and a sprinkling of salt. Cogley poured us each a glass of chilled Grüner Veltliner that paired deliciously with our abalone creations. No surprise there, he is an expert.
I did have to invoke some serious superhero skills for this assignment, juggling a camera, a notepad, and a pen, all while wielding a knife, a mallet, and a variety of other utensils. What a fun experience!
I took my pounded abalone home and, as Cogley instructed for those of us who don’t have a sous vide machine at home, steamed the abalone over the lowest heat possible. I drizzled the abalone every hour to keep it moist and I did this for five hours. Needless to say, this didn’t make it to the dinner table on time, but it ended up being a late-night treat for my husband. I thought my sons would complain that they didn’t get to try any, but they were content with the abalone shells I brought home for them.
Now I’m inspired to get over to the commercial wharf, pick up some abalone from the Monterey Abalone Company, maybe finagle a tour, and give this recipe another whirl. Cooking abalone is not as daunting as I previously imagined…thanks to the fabulous guidance of Chef Cogley and the staff at Aubergine.
Camilla M. Mann has crammed a lot of different jobs into four decades: florist, waitress, SCUBA divemaster, stock photo agency manager, stroller fitness teacher, writer, editor, and au pair. But, if she had to distill who she is today – tree-hugging, veggie-crunching, jewelry-designing mean mommy who loves to cook but hates to clean. Thankfully her husband and their boys clean like champs. Her current culinary goal: grow conscientious, creative kids with fearless palates! She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com