I have a confession to make. I get very squeamish around shellfish and seafood even though I love eating them. I decided after traumatising the whelks and myself today that I will only be eating shellfish if they appear on my plate cleaned and cooked. Which to be honest is a little bit of an issue when you live on an island and Kai Moana (seafood) is a large part of the culture. Let me fill you in a little more.
If you are easily grossed out, don’t read this.
Today while I was driving from one clients house to another I heard one of the local fish shops advertising crayfish for $15 each to celebrate the beginning of the crayfish season. There are strict regulations around how many you can catch, how big they are and when you can catch them. I do love crayfish, sweet with a delicate flavour, there is nothing better than a crayfish sandwich.
The only problem I have is that when you buy them, they look like - well crayfish! There is also the not small matter of all the crayfish that have not been cooked swimming around in the tank in the fish shop. “Toughen up Lisa!” I hear all those Kiwis saying. I can’t buy food that I’ve made eye contact with, it’s as simple as that. I settled for one that was already cooked and carefully avoided it’s little beady gaze. I’ve refrained from naming him.
He’s rather beautiful though and to be honest I can’t wait to eat him, errr it. But I’ll share my crayfish sandwich with you another day, today is all about the whelks.
Next to the cooked crayfish was a huge pile of these whelks, I’d never seen these in a fish shop before and the very helpful woman behind the counter told me that they are not often there and that they might be good in a stir fry. She also told me to cook them much like a cockle - steaming or boiling them. I’d only ever seen the vacant shells on the beach and never heard of anyone eating these.
Carefully I picked out my whelks and they were put in a plastic bag and sealed tightly. I made sure I chose ones that were all still alive. I started to feel guilty about that point. I told myself if chefs could do this with all manner of food I could too and that it would be irresponsible of me to not cook them now that I’d purchased them. Still I was almost tempted to throw them back in the sea out of pity for them. I forced myself to continue home - determined.
Once home I put the water on to boil and made sure it was at a good rolling boil before I tossed the bag of whelks in and put the oven timer on for 10 minutes. I tried to forget about the whelks, left the kitchen and pretended I was busy with something else, trying to forget about the whelks dying in my saucepan.
When the timer went I drained them and then went about the business of cleaning them with the intention of making scungilli marinara. Italians call these scungilli and they are available in canned form in some places.
How to Cook and Clean Live Whelks.
Place your whelks into salted boiling water - enough to cover them, cook for roughly 10 minutes if small (3-5 inches).
Don’t overcook them or they will be tough.
Drain and leave until cool enough to hold the shells.
Place a small sharp bladed knife crosswise in the flesh that you can see protruding out of the shell, pull gently and the whelk will slide out of the shell.
This is what it will look like.
The bit that you eat is the creamy firm flesh of the foot. You have to cut the gut off where the muscle starts. Clean all the remaining bits that are not muscle off under running water. Cut the sharp little shell at the end of the foot off also. Now that you just have the muscle there if you look at the end you will see the dijestive tract. Slip the knife along the side and into it, to open it out and run water through to clean it. You can see it in the photo below.
Cut your whelk into bite sized pieces ready to include in a dish.
This is the unfortunate part. I really felt queasy after cleaning all the whelks, all those gooey bits just really got to me. I could not make the scungilli marinara. I didn’t want them to have given their lives in vain though, so I tried a teeny bite of the whelk meat.
It’s quite sweet, reminiscent of crab, with the texture a little closer to that of squid. Not over powering, quite subtle and pleasant. I still could not eat any more of it. I was too traumatised by the guilt of cooking them and the whole cleaning process. Everyone in the family tried some - including Isaac who seemed pretty impressed with himself eating a sea snail.
There are plenty of recipes about, including in marinara sauce and in salads. You’ll have a good hit rate if you search for Scungilli. I’d definitely eat this if it appeared cooked on my plate, it’s tasty. But for now I think I’ll just enjoy collecting and looking at their shells on the beach.
RIP little whelks.