Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Slipper limpets as food; from the new, widened political horizon

I only learned last summer that slipper limpets, "boat shells" on Cape Cod, are edible. I learned this browsing North Atlantic Seafood, by the late Alan Davidson, a wonderful book (and cheap used on Amazon, follow the link). Davidson, however, confuses our native crepidula fornicata with some other limpets, maybe true limpets or invasive crepidula that bother oyster beds in Northern Europe. Ours mostly stick to rocks, although they will develop chains on shells, pilings or anything else solid they can glom onto, glomming being the defense of limpets. I went oystering this winter several times in Pamet Harbor and saw few limpets, nor does any Cape town require shellfish licensees to harvest and kill slipper limpets, as they require us to deal with whelks, moon snails, starfish, green crabs, and other actual predators of commercial shellfish.

Moreover, I never saw them on a menu or met anyone else who ate them, although limpets called 'lappas' are an Azorean delicacy, and Azorean Portuguese fisherman and their descendants are a significant ethnic population on the lower cape. There is or was some commercial exploration of them in Rhode Island, according to this interesting study out of Roger Williams.

Well, I was picking up a few summer and fall, and steaming them with clams, and picking them out of the shell and throwing them in the chowder. I ate some and found them tasty, and they added a lot to the broth. But only in the last month have I really got into them. One reason is that at this time of year, the larger ones -- which have turned female -- have perhaps an eighth of a teaspoon of golden, mildly delicious roe. So I was collecting a tablespoon or so of roe and offering it on toast. It is the season of pre-spawned shellfish, the clams are fat, too, although the quahog roe is black. And on some windy days, and weak tides, I wasn't getting out enough to get a lot of clams on the beaches, so I was back in the shallows, picking up lots of limpets.

Aside from the rare treat of the roe, which will never hit restaurants because it's too much work and a short season, limpet meats (mostly the "foot" muscle than makes a suction cup) are tasty and twice as nutritious as oysters, and the broth, which is easy -- you just steam them off the rocks and filter out the sand -- is superior. The broth could be commercialized, should be. Picking the meats is a fair bit of hand labor, even for free food. I spent about an hour working through a half-gallon of slipper limpets and small rocks, ending up with more than a quart of rocks, about as many shells, and a cup-and-one-half or a little more of loose limpet meats and roe. I thought about limpet hash, but decided to grind and freeze.

I now have about a cup of ground grey and gold limpet meat frozen, and maybe a quart of broth, and could make a pure limpet chowder or stew, or clear soup with asparagus (a complementary flavor, I think)  but am thinking of mixing with breadcrumbs and stuffing something small -- like macaroni shells. But it may be too strong a taste. I could make a stodgy fried cake like a clam cake. That would be similar to the Azorean way of eating limpets (look like true limpets in the pictures) in a rice pilaf. (They grill true limpets in Hawaii, possibly due to Portuguese influence as this also an Azorean way.)

Or, and this may be the thing: I could get wonton or ravioli wrappers from a Chinese grocery, mix ground limpets with ginger, mushroom, carrots in bits, scallions -- and make a limpet dumplings or wontons. Serve them as pot-stickers, or dumplings in a fish soup.

So that's a dispatch from the political horizons of the politics of food, eat local, eat wild, eat sustainable. Wikipedia says the natural science of limpets is fairly developed, but other than their sexual switch having attained a certain size, and with other limpets around, what do we know? What are the predators of slipper limpets? I see some empty shells drilled, which is moon snail modus operandi in Cape Cod Bay. And I bet gulls get a few loose big ones, although they are looking for stranded clams and slow crabs mostly when I am out at low tide. Can tautog eat them as they cruise for crabs?

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