Saturday afternoon, our final day in Sea Ranch, we went strolling along the bluffs. The sun was sparkling on calm seas, the sun shone warmly upon us, and a brisk, cool breeze buffeted our backs. Jim broke out the stunt kite, which pulled with such force it made the tethers hum like guitar strings, and forced him to crouch down to lower his center of gravity lest he be thrown forward.
Down on the water, among the kelp tops, we noticed a red flag; moments after a man appeared in the rocks at the foot of the bluff, rising from the surf like Swamp Thing. Shortly thereafter, his friend came in with the red-flagged raft, containing two mesh bags full of abalone.
Our friend Joe is an ab diver. When we mention this to others, they remark how lucky we are to have a friend like that, but the reality is we've seen just one mollusk from him in the years we've known him. This is in part because abalones are pretty heavily overfished and the quotas are restrictive. But the real reason is that Joe is a master barterer, and abs make for good trade.
We've come to assume that all divers treasure their bounty so dearly, and small wonder. Ab diving is a dangerous business. Aside from having to immerse yourself in the shockingly cold waters of the Pacific, ab divers are allowed only to free-dive; no oxygen tanks are allowed. Abalone live in kelp forests and on the sea floor, so you have to have excellent breath control and dexterity underwater. Most alarmingly, humans in wet suits tend to resemble seals -- and you're in shark-infested waters.
As we came back up the trail, the first diver was there, parked in the cul-de-sac around the corner from the house. Three large abalone lay on their backs on the road beside his truck. We remarked that he seemed to have a good outing. "You like abalone?" he asked.
"Sure," we replied.
"You know what to do with them?"
"You bet." DPaul and I remember very well our friend Kathleen preparing a sizable ab of Joe's a number of years back.
"You want one?"
We hesitated. I replied, "Sure, how much?"
"Oh, no. You can have one. I get tons of these things." He went on to explain he was in a competition, and so after measuring the three abs, gave us the smallest one, which was still some eight inches in length and easily three pounds. We had ample wine, so we offered him a nice bottle of pinot noir in trade.
We were giddy with anticipation over such a treat. Abalone in the restaurants can cost $50 or more for a fairly modest serving; we clearly had a few hundred dollars of ab on our hands here. But the first challenge was to extricate the beast.
We referred to some instructions online, which of course recommended an ab knife as the tool of choice. We didn't have one handy, so it became a process of DPaul and I using a knife, a screwdriver and a bamboo spatula to forcibly remove this hunk of muscle from its self-made home. Once freed, the real fun began. The foot of the abalone is the edible part, and luckily the bulk of its yield, but the shell also contains a fair amount of unpleasantly squishy guts (DPaul reluctantly took care of this ugly task), and the foot must also be trimmed of all of its black outer skin, which I dispatched with a long knife. It's slippery and gross. Anita photo-documented the entire procedure.
Once trimmed, the foot is cut into thin filets, which then must be pounded to within an inch of their lives. Abalone meat is exceedingly tough, so without pounding it is like eating cartilage, tough and chewy and utterly unpleasant. A healthy dose of brute force loosens the muscle tissue and renders it tender. Jim did the honors.
The preferred method of preparing abalone is to then dredge the steaks in flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs, and fry them quickly so as not to toughen the meat again. Anita dredged; Cam fried.
It took a village and several hours, but we were ultimately left with a large plateful of tender, fried steaks. Abalone doesn't really have much flavor of its own. I have referred to it as the veal of the sea, and in fact this preparation is reminiscent of wiener schnitzel. Some say it isn't worth it. I disagree. I'd do the whole messy business again.