This post comes to us courtesy of writer and Williams-Sonoma creative consultant Laura Martin Bacon.
When I was growing up on the Monterey Peninsula, abalone were plentiful in our local waters – and on our family dinner table. At an age when most kids would insist on baloney sandwiches in their lunchboxes, I’d beg for abalone sandwiches.
My dad would cheerfully cook up extra abalone slices at dinner, dredging them lightly in seasoned flour and pan-frying them till they were buttery and golden. The next day, that sweet, tender seafood on a fresh sourdough roll was enough to get me through even the most arduous math tests and piano lessons.
Those days are long past – it’s been illegal to buy or sell wild abalone in California since 1997. But anyone with a taste for the delicacy can still get some in time for holiday celebrations – if you know where to look.
That’s why I jump at the chance to catch a private tour of a unique Bay Area aquafarm with a few fellow abalone fans from the San Francisco Professional Food Society.
The fun starts down on the docks at Half Moon Bay’s historic Pillar Point Harbor, where Google Executive Chef Olivia Wu and California Abalone Company owner Doug Hayes team up to explain the ABCs of abalone – from farm to table.
Olivia praises Doug’s abalone farm as “sustainable aquaculture at its best. This is as fresh and local as you can get – and a true labor of love.”
“What I’m doing is so labor-intensive that you might question whether it’s worth it,” Doug admits. “But this is probably the only way people will be able to enjoy abalone in the future.”
Only the best is good enough for Doug’s abalone. Every Saturday, he drives down to Monterey to harvest a ton of kelp in the three tasty varieties that comprise the mollusks’ favorite menu, then hauls the fresh seaweed out to the farm to feed his “pets.”
The smallest are about the diameter of a nickel – and will take up to 14 years to reach the largest size that Doug sells off his boat (the “medium” ones are about nine years old). As Doug pries one of the biggest abalone out of the seawater tank and packages it in a special oxygenated bag, he laughingly advises the buyer to “take good care of Steve.”
When you’re buying something as rare and valuable as abalone (with or without a name), you want to make sure to prepare it properly – so Doug and Olivia provide all the details.
“In the Asian culinary tradition, abalone isn’t pounded,” Olivia tells us. “The secret lies in the knife skills of the chef – you need to slice abalone very thinly to get the perfect texture. After that, it can be stir-fried, poached or steamed.”
“You want to keep it really simple so you don’t overpower the abalone’s delicate flavor,” Doug says. “Start by dredging the abalone in flour – then get a real hot frying pan, add butter and a little olive oil, and cook the slices for about 30 seconds on each side.”
After abalone lovers have been clued in on the how-tos, Jim Anderson of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Association makes a surprise announcement: he’s arranged for a vintage 1920s fishing trawler to take us out to the farm for a close-up look.
The aquafarm is just inside the harbor breakwater, where water conditions are perfect for abalone. We cruise by the 3000 square foot platform that marks the top of the farm – and use our imaginations to envision the car-sized cages below, each home to hundreds of happy abalone.
When we get back from our voyage, we head over to the nearby Maverick’s Event Center for more briny fun. After a seafood lunch, Jim Anderson explains how Half Moon Bay fishermen have partnered with Google to create a new CSF (Community Supported Fishery) program that brings the company’s employees the freshest local seafood. “We deliver fish to the Googlers every week. Olivia developed a special pouch that keeps the fish super-fresh, so everyone is guaranteed the best quality.”
“At Google, we work directly with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to create our own green seafood list that’s more refined and local than the more general one they provide,” Olivia says. “Eating a truly local catch is much more delicious and offers incredible variety – it really showcases what being a locavore is all about.”
To crown the afternoon’s adventure, Gaston Alfaro, Executive Chef at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, shares his secrets for prepping, cooking and serving the ultimate abalone salad and abalone meuniere. He follows up the generous tasting sampler with a special dessert: his signature “Mavericks Beeramisu,” made with handcrafted Mavericks porter and stout.
Hungry for your own home-cooked abalone? If you find yourself near Half Moon Bay, just stop by Doug’s boat at slip F-22 in Pillar Point Harbor – he’s there most weekends from 11 am-4 pm (depending on the weather and his mood). Then check out Chef Gaston’s abalone recipes – and enjoy a seafood-loving locavore’s delight!
About the author: Laura is a longtime writer and creative consultant for Williams-Sonoma and other well-known entities. She’s also the Culinary Creative Director of DooF (“food” backwards), an organization that uses multi-media entertainment, education and live events to help kids and families discover the magic of food. DooF explores every aspect of food – from flavors, history, science and cultural traditions to the exciting journey from source-to-table. Laura’s mission: to make good food fun – at home, in the classroom and beyond.