I drive north from Morro Bay, nine miles along Highway 1 to buy abalone, a key ingredient in one of my favorite special dishes. Abalone has been cherished for centuries for its delicate flavor, beautiful shell and, among other believers, its aphrodisiac qualities.
The drive to the Abalone Farm on the north end of Cayucos at Estero Point, along some of the most scenic coastline in California, is as wonderful as the succulent mollusk I’m procuring. Turning left off Route 1, I soon detect the smell of wild sage and rosemary. Cresting the last steep hill of a winding, bumpy dirt road, the farm comes into view. Scores of cement salt water tanks filled with kelp and abalone stretch across the tops of the cliffs above the crashing waves of the blue Pacific below.
The Abalone Farm is the oldest and largest producer of farm-raised abalone (halitosis rufescent) per year, which it supplies to restaurants and ships all over the world. If I arrive during lunch, I may catch a soccer game between teams made up of the farm’s largely Hispanic work force. Brad, the General Manager, usually meets me in the lower parking area, from which we ascend to the production building to pick up my order.
In the production area, six to eight women seated at worktables and armed with tenderizing mallets pound away at the abalone flush to make it tender enough to eat. Brad usually reaches between the falling mallets to grab a couple small steaks for us to sample sashimi style. After dipping them in a mixture of rice vinegar, soy sauce and red chili oil, we down the delicious slices with quick chew.
I like to sauté abalone when I’m not using it for sashimi or sushi. Preparing sautéd Abalone is very simple; however, the trimming is critical. Chris Jones, a long-time friend, taught it to me more than 40 years ago. Chris liked to dive for wild abalone at a time when they were still plentiful along the Central Coast.
Let’s get cookin’!
Begin with pounded pieces of abalone steak. Dip them in whole beaten eggs, then place them in crushed saltine crackers, breading the abalone on both sides. To sauté, bring clarified butter up to temperature. Place the abalone steaks in a large pan, taking care not to crowd them. Lightly brown the steaks, approximately 40 seconds per side. At the last minute, squeeze a fresh lemon over them and serve immediately, ladling a little of the now browned-butter over them. Any overcooking will cause the abalone to toughen and dry.
What I like about the dish is its simplicity. There’s no reason to even accompany it with a sauce. The light cracker crust seals in the abalone’s delicate flavor. We serve the dish on our charter yacht, the Papagallo II, and always to rave reviews.
In 2012, I was hired as a guest chef for a video shoot in Monterey, California, to introduce Dreaming Tree Everyday, a new wine varietal brought out by Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthew’s Band. I prepared Sautéd Abalone for Dave and his winemaker as a part of the shoot. Dave said it was one of the best things he had ever eaten.