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Building Up California Abs

June 23, 1994|KITTY MORSE

In a departure from most other similar ventures, Van Hook's abalones grow in cages hanging from a long floating dock, inside converted plastic barrels that have had top and bottom removed and replaced with plastic mesh to allow for free circulation of sea water. When they reach 39 millimeters in size, the juvenile abalone are transferred to large, rectangular plastic mesh cages that hold vertical panels. The abalone attach themselves to the panels in the same way they attach to rocks in the wild.

A labor-intensive feeding process ensures correct nutrition, requiring kelp to be gathered from wild kelp beds (for which a small fee is paid to the state), then brought to the farm site and cut up into small pieces before being fed to the developing abalone. Three years later, the three-inch mollusk will be ready for market, a lengthy process by any stretch of the imagination, and one that explains the abalone's relatively high market price.

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A sideline of ABALONE International's commitment to sound environmental practices is its cooperation with the Del Norte County Abalone Replant Program. Funds gathered through fines levied by the county's fish and game department purchase three-quarter-inch abalone in order to "replant" them in the rocks lining the county shoreline. Through such programs, hopes Van Hook, wild abalone might once again thrive in California waters.

At US Abalone in Princeton, south of San Francisco, farming is also a family operation. Tom Ebert, an aquaculture scientist and a veteran of 17 years in abalone research and production, holds a master's degree in marine research from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California. He credits his father, Earl, a research director at the California Department of Fish and Game for more than 30 years, with being one of the pioneers in abalone research in the state. Ebert's brother, David, who holds a Ph.D. in marine ecology and fisheries science, is now in charge of expansion and development.

US Abalone actually consists of two operations: one on land and the other at sea. At the Santa Cruz facility, the abalone is raised in raceways, or long troughs, continually fed sea water and seaweed.

At the open ocean location in Pillar Point Harbor, abalone are raised in large cages suspended from 20-by-12-foot rafts just inside the breakwater.

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"The flavor of the meat depends upon food and water quality," explains Tom Ebert, who, like his colleagues, sees a tremendous national potential for farm-raised abalone. "Much of our success in marketing our product domestically depends on educating the public."

Although national consumption is increasing, thanks to many upscale chefs' predilection for the product, much of the California abalone production is still bound for the Japanese market, which tolerates premium prices. Thanks to these commercial producers, American consumers may well join in the abalone feast once again.

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Chris Van Hook credits his friend Diane Davies with developing this recipe. "Don't forget to save the shells," he advises. "They make beautiful containers for the sauce." Placed in the refrigerator on a drain board so they do not sit in water, abalone will stay alive for three days, and fresh for four additional days. Abalone can also be prepared immediately and frozen between layers of wax paper.

ABALONE IN JADE SAUCE 10 (2 1/2-inch) abalone 2 tablespoons minced ginger root 3/4 pound spinach, rinsed, stemmed and patted dry 1 bunch chives, rinsed and dried 4 sprigs cilantro 4 basil leaves 1/4 cup chicken stock 3/4 cup whipping cream 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon cold water 1/4 cup butter, cut up Freshly ground pepper

Rinse, tenderize and thoroughly dry abalone scallops. Rub scallops with half of ginger root. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

To make sauce, process spinach, chives, cilantro, basil and remaining ginger root in increments until finely chopped in blender or food processor. Add chicken stock and process until fairly smooth. Add cream, salt and chili sauce. Process until pureed. Place mixture in medium saucepan over low heat and bring to simmer.

Meanwhile, combine cornstarch with 1 tablespoon cold water in small bowl. Mix until smooth. Add mixture to simmering sauce. Stir until well blended. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, 2 to 4 minutes longer.

Place prepared abalone on baking sheet. Dot with butter. Season to taste with pepper. Bake abalone at 500 degrees until flesh turns white and is firm to touch, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from oven. Spoon sauce in pool on dinner plate. Place abalone on top of sauce. Serve immediately. Makes about 4 servings.

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