California abalone has a certain mythological allure for me. It’s a delicious mollusk, tender and succulent. It tastes like the sea only sweeter. I have enjoyed it many times at restaurants in my life, but I had never attempted to make abalone at home.
Which is really surprising to me. You see when I was a kid, long before I ever moved to California, I read an adventurous and beguiling book called Island of the Blue Dolphins about a young Chumash girl left to fend for herself on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara.
I used to daydream about that book. Her house was made of whalebones and her meals were from the sea, including abalone.
By the time I moved to Santa Barbara myself, abalone had become a delicacy that was being eaten right into extinction. It got so bad that commercial harvest of the creatures had to be banned completely so that the wild population would have a chance to rebound.
But abalone is just too good to do without. So naturally, enterprising folks began experimenting with farmed abalone. And I am happy to say those experiments proved valid and California now has multiple abalone farms that have flourished and helped prove that environmentally friendly aqua farming procedures can be financially and deliciously successful.
So successful that Seafood Watch now rates farmed abalone as a Best Choice and though it’s quite expensive sometimes it is such a pleasure to eat. Thanks to its rating though, at least it is no longer a guilty pleasure.
But abalone is a lot of work. It is extremely perishable and should be kept refrigerated and used within 3 days. It can be purchased frozen– already cleaned and tenderized as ready to cook steaks. But I think it’s better to buy live and do the work yourself. If it’s going to be expensive (and it is) it may as well be as good as it can possibly be!
Schucking abalone at home takes some courage, mostly because you don’t want to screw it up and waste one precious ounce. But the process goes like this: take an offset spatula and slide it under the foot of the abalone. Easing it (with some difficulty) from its shell. Once released you’ll see some ugly guts. This is the digestive system. Separate it from the rest with your fingers. Then using a sharp knife, find the bony “mouth” (it’s the less pointy end) and anus (pointy end) cut them off. Rinse off abalone, making sure to remove any of the tissue connecting it to the digestive organs. Rinse the shells, and reserve them, they’re pretty!
You’ll see a set of black frilly lips running around the edge of the abalone. Use the knife to make an incision between the lips about 1/4‑inch deep all the way around. Then try to peel the tough outer layer away. Yes, this is the tricky part (the very tricky part) but it can be done. Once successful use your fingers to rub off any black skin remaining. You should be left with a chunk of clean white flesh.
Tenderizing is next. You can tenderize the whole piece, but I decided to cut mine crosswise into 1/2‑inch thick slices and individually pounded them with the bottom of a cast iron skillet (between 2 pieces of plastic) until they were about 3/8‑inch to 1/4‑inch thick. That’s the whole process.
I hope you are feeling brave enough to try abalone yourself. This appetizer-sized recipe for Grilled Abalone & Pineapple Skewers with Mango, Mustard, Soy Sauce should make a great incentive! My brother Grant paired it with a food-friendly Vouvray. So all the work is done for you! Except, of course, buying, cleaning, prepping, tenderizing, marinating, skewering and grilling. But don’t let that stop you!
Makes 8 skewers CLICK here for a printable recipe
SERIOUS FUN FOOD