Milk conch at low tide – Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas.
Fresh-made conch salad at the Island Roots Heritage Festival, Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas.
Though I was born (and spent much of my childhood) in the Bahamas, Tom always jokes that he’s more Bahamian than me. And in some ways, it’s true. I’m not that keen on fish, a Bahamian staple. Too many bones, too much trouble. And though hot peppers are ubiquitous in Bahamian cuisine, I prefer milder flavours. Tom, on the other hand, could live on fish. Snapper, muttonfish, jacks, grunts, grouper, mahi mahi — he loves them all. And hot peppers? Let’s just say he’s not one to shy away.
On a trip to Green Turtle Cay a few years back, Tom decided to make conch chowder, which he did without a recipe (or even Google.) The result was really good, and surprisingly authentic.
Over the next few months, I sought out and tried a number of different chowder recipes. Ultimately, I combined elements from several different recipes, and did a little improvisation of my own.
According to Tom, my conch chowder is delicious. Not quite as good as his, he’s quick to add. But close.
Unfortunately, since Tom didn’t write down his recipe, I can’t share it so you can make an objective comparison. But here’s mine, in case you’d like to give it a try.
Don’t stress too much about exact quantities or cooking times. Many Bahamian cooks work by feel rather than by recipe and as a result, most native dishes are quite forgiving.
Amanda’s Conch Chowder
6 conchs, cleaned and cut into small (roughly 1/2″) cubes*
10 cups water
butter or margarine
4 slices turkey bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small green pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced or thinly sliced
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
14-oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
8-oz can tomato sauce
2 bay leaves
Hot sauce or cayenne pepper (optional)
Place conch, water and 1 tbsp butter in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for an hour or so, until conch is tender. (Warning: conch boils over very easily. The butter is supposed to prevent over-boiling, but trust me — watch the pot.) Drain conch, reserving the liquid, and set aside.
In the same pot, heat a tablespoon or so of butter or margarine or canola oil. Saute turkey bacon for a couple of minutes, then add onions, garlic, green pepper, celery, carrots, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon basil and a little salt and pepper. Cook until bacon begins to get crisp and vegetables soften.
Add tomato paste and saute for a minute or two. Add the water in which the conch was cooked, undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, potato, bay leaves, another teaspoon or so of thyme and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 20-30 minutes or until potato is cooked.
Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. If chowder is too thick, add a little warm water or tomato sauce. If it’s too thin, mash some of the potatoes and vegetables against the side of the pot with a fork, then stir them in. And if, like Tom, you prefer more spice, add a little Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper.
Serve with Bahamian Johnny Cake (there’s a great Whole Wheat Johnny Cake recipe in Healthier Bahamian Cuisine) or crusty bread. Serves 4-6.
* If you can’t find conch, I’m told clams make a good substitute. No need to pre-cook, just add them during the last few minutes of cooking. In place of the conch water, use the clam liquid plus enough water to equal 6 cups or so.