Phil's International Flair

Welcome to Seasoned Cooking and to Phil's International Flair!

This month, I am taking a slightly different slant in this column. I am going to tell you a little bit about the abalone and end with a few suggestions on how to prepare them.

The abalone is a seawater snail, indigenous to the western coast of the North American Continent, ranging from Mexico in the south to Southeast Alaska in the north. Abalone are also found in a few other parts of the world. There are 6 primary varieties, red, pink, green, black, pinto and white. A few hybrids have been found in the wild, however. The pinto abalone are more abundant in the far north (Canada and Alaska). Black abalone are more common in shallow water and tidal areas along the rugged coastline.

The range of their habitat can extend into hundreds of feet deep in the ocean. The red abalone is the largest of the species and has the greatest commercial value. Abalone are found along the coastline where rocks and seaweed are abundant and in deep water where seaweed can grow.

The abalone begins life from eggs that are fertilized in the open ocean water. Once an egg is fertilized, it forms a microscopic creature called a veliger. Under a microscope, the veliger looks like a little helicopter with vibrating scilia that keep it suspended in the water. After about a week, the veliger starts to form a shell, causing it to sink. Veligers that happen to land in the sand are doomed to die of starvation, whereas those that land upon a rocky substrate with plenty of algae growing on it will survive. Red abalone grow at the rate of about 1 inch per year when they are young, and reach a maximum size of less than 12 inches after about 40 to 50 years in the wild. Generally speaking, once an abalone veliger lands on a rock, it will remain within 3 feet of that landing spot for its entire life. Since an abalone has only one foot, it can't run. They simply wander around a small area munching on seaweed. The scilia on the veligers eventually develop into the "feelers" that you see in the photograph.

Predators of the abalone include sea otters, fish, birds and other critters that make their home near the sea. The sea urchin competes with the abalone for food, and have been known to decimate an entire abalone population by "mowing" the seaweed down so that the abalone starve to death. Many areas that were once very productive for abalone are now barren due to a sea urchin infestation. On the positive side, markets have expanded in Japan for the export of sea urchins. With more sea urchins being harvested to meet this demand, kelp beds will eventually be reestablished providing suitable habitat for abalone. There are programs currently underway to transplant kelp to reforest the ocean. It is important that we learn from past mistakes and properly manage the harvest of these resources to maintain a proper balance. In this way we can sustain harvestable levels of abalone, urchins, and other animals to stabilize market prices. The abalone has a single shell comprised of mother of pearl. The shells are quite beautiful. In centuries past, the abalone was harvested as food by the native peoples that lived along the western coast. The shells were used for making jewelry and tools, and highly valued for trading purposes.

When the Chinese laborers were "imported" into California to assist in building the railroad system, abalone became a staple food in their diet. The Americans -- being primarily meat eaters -- did not think highly of the abalone as a food source. They had no problem with the Chinese eating all the abalone they could harvest along the rugged coastline.

Around the time of the depression, Americans developed a taste for abalone as well. This may have been due to economic circumstances, or it could have been from the influence of the Chinese and Mexicans who highly prized the abalone as a food and source of protein. The commercial harvest of abalone sustained a commercial yield of 20 to 30 million pounds per year in California alone from the mid 30's until the mid 60's. Then, due to a variety of circumstances, the commercial harvest began a serious decline. By the mid 90's, less than 20,000 pounds of abalone were commercially harvested per year in California. By the year 2000, as a measure to preserve what was remaining of the abalone population, the California Department of Fish and Game imposed a ban on all commercial harvest of abalone in California. In addition, regulations were enacted to prohibit sport harvest of abalone south of the Golden Gate Bridge. Too little too late? I question why the abalone was not placed on the endangered species list decades ago.

However, these new regulations designed to preserve what is left of the remaining resource has created a whole new set of problems. A black market has emerged with poachers taking abalone from the north coast of California and selling them to restaurants and fish markets in the San Francisco bay area. A single animal can bring as much as $250 to a poacher. Some poachers have been caught with over 1,500 abalone in possession, all taken in a single day! Restaurants and fish markets have also been fined for purchasing illegal abalone.

Around 1970, the California Department of Fish and Game, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the commercial fishermen, began to address the issue of this declining resource. While the DF&G began trying to raise abalone in captivity, the university developed methods for inducing the spawning of abalone. In a last ditch effort to save the resource, the commercial fishermen built a small abalone hatchery on Stearn's Wharf in Santa Barbara. The intent was to grow some abalone to about 1 inch in size, and then "seed" these animals into ocean beds that were historically productive. While this effort by the commercial fishermen was an honorable one, the commercial abalone fishery was rapidly becoming history.

However, technology did prevail to some degree, and the methods for growing abalone became almost a cookbook-type process. Since the law of supply and demand caused the market price of processed abalone to skyrocket to over $100 per pound, the viability of abalone "farms" became an economically viable alternative to meet market demands. A few entrepeneurs managed to secure funding and a new industry was born. One of these ventures is a company called "The Cultured Abalone," located in Dos Pueblos Canyon, Santa Barbara County, (805) 685-1956.

Deana McAuley and I had the opportunity to tour The Cultured Abalone facility only a few weeks ago. Taking advantage of the technology developed by the state, my friend Dick Craig managed to put together a business plan to build an abalone production facility in Santa Barbara. He partnered with the landowner, and the operation began. This operation is literally growing millions of red abalone ranging in size from microscopic to about 5 inches in length. Fresh seawater is pumped through the facility via an intake pipe that extends about 1/2 mile into the ocean. Shaded growing tanks occupy well over an acre in area.

According to Dick, this operation is finally becoming profitable. It takes about 3 to 5 years to grow an abalone to a marketable size. Most of their abalone is exported to Japan, at a size of 3-1/2 inches, where abalone is very popular as sushi. A smaller proportion is sold to local processors and distributors who supply restaurants with abalone steaks. Dick notes that there is an increasing demand for larger animals that more closely resemble wild abalone. The Cultured Abalone sells abalone in the shell at wholesale prices ranging from $15 to $18 per pound, depending on size. The actual yield is about 40% meat after processing. Although this isn't cheap by any means, at least consumers have the opportunity to eat abalone without impacting what little remains of the wild stock.

I asked Dick if he had ever considered marketing abalone directly to consumers. During the initial downturn in the economy, he had considered this, however during the past year their operation is barely keeping up with demand. Consequently, they continue to expand the operation adding more and more tanks to grow abalone to a larger size. Dick did say, however, that if there were a processor capable of purchasing abalone in batches of 10 pounds or more, that they could process and ship steaks directly to customers. During the course of the coming year, I will be looking into the feasability of doing this so that the readers of Seasoned Cooking can order abalone online and have frozen processed steaks shipped to their door within 2 days. I will keep readers posted.

Needless to say, I had to purchase some abalone for dinner. I prepared steaks and cooked them using the recipe below.

The recipes presented this month are from my yet to be published cookbook, Phil's Family and Friends Cookbook. Feel free to email me at with your comments and requests. Be well, and good eating!

Now, on to the recipes!

Abalone Steaks
Abalone steaks must be tenderized prior to cooking. If you are able to purchase processed steaks, they will already be tenderized. If you need to tenderize abalone yourself, it is quite simple with the right tools. A large mallet is best for tenderizing abalone. Place the raw steak on a cutting board or other hard surface and strike the steak sharply with the mallet, once on each side. This will shock the muscle into relaxing. It will be very tender if not overcooked.

If you happen to procure whole abalone and pound your own steaks, the trimmings can be used for making a delicious chowder. Or, grind the trimmings with scallops to make scalone (see below).

  • 4 abalone steaks, pounded
  • 2 Tbsp. butter

Melt the butter in a skillet over very low heat. Once the butter is warm, place the abalone steaks in the skillet, turning after 15 seconds. Simmer for an additional 15 seconds on the other side and remove from heat immediately. Serve warm. Do not overcook, or your abalone will have the consistency of shoe leather!

Optionally, you may coat the steaks with bread or cracker crumbs prior to cooking. Some people like to dip the steak into an egg batter prior to cooking. Abalone has a very mild flavor, yet is very rich. In my opinion, little or no seasoning is best.

I served our abalone steaks with salad and asparagus.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 1 minute
Abalone Sushi
I prefer to tenderize abalone before using it as sushi. Even tenderized, raw abalone will be a bit on the chewy side. However, it is absolutely delicious!
  • 1 whole abalone, about 1/4 lb. without the shell
  • Sushi rice

Slice tenderized abalone into pieces about 1 inch wide by 2 inches long. Place over a finger sized portion of sushi rice and wrap with a strip of dried seaweed. Serve with wasabi and soy sauce.

  • Yields: 8 servings
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Scalone
Scalone is a mixture of scallops and abalone. Equal parts of both are ground together in a meat grinder to a consistency similar to hamburger. A butcher can do this for you if you don't have a meat grinder. This is a good way to stretch that expensive abalone into a dish that can serve several people. Grinding also minimizes the waste and assures that the abalone will be tender, even if it is overcooked a little bit.
  • 1/2 lb. abalone
  • 1/2 lb. fresh scallops
  • bread or cracker crumbs
  • 1 egg white

Form the ground abalone/scallop mixture into patties about the size of a hamburger. Brush each patty with egg white and sprinkle with bread or cracker crumbs on both sides. Ritz crackers work well. Salt and pepper to taste. Place each patty into a buttered skillet and simmer for about 1 to 2 minutes each side over medium heat, or until slightly golden brown. Serve promptly and enjoy!

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes

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