Conch, how do I love thee … let me count the waves. No, really, take a guess at how many tasty ways Chef Deon Thomas offers us in his new, slim but mighty cookbook. Chef Deon, a fixture of the Martha’s Vineyard culinary scene, gives us 31 sumptuous options — at least one for every palate. But more of that in a moment; first some context.
Chef Deon is an Island person in every sense, as denoted in the title of his new cookbook, “Chef Deon’s Island Conch Cookery: Martha’s Vineyard & the Caribbean Islands.” In a way, the islands in the second part of the title should be reversed, because the root of his delectable recipes is the Caribbean cuisine that runs in his blood. As he writes at the start of his introduction, “Tale of a Few Islands,” “In childhood, on my daily morning seaside visits, it was a pleasure to observe fishing boats approaching the harbor bearing their treasure trove …” and goes on with a long list of seafood that concludes with conch [pronounced “conk,” like “conking” one’s head). Chef Deon continues, “In my village, as in many seaside Caribbean villages, queen conch is that treasured gastropod, shucked for its pearl, the meat, raw conch, and consumed in a variety of ways. It is prized for its clean, sweet flavor, chewy-gooey texture, the merits of lean protein, and for its storied aphrodisiac qualities.” Go ahead and chortle at the virility attribute, but Chef Deon tells us that teenage boys to older men in the Caribbean treasure “conch thistle or conch pride, part of the male reproductive organ.”
It’s worth reading the rest of the Introduction to get a sense of conch “culture.” Chef Deon packs a great deal of fascinating information into just five pages. We learn about the difference between channeled whelk and Caribbean queen conch — which he uses just for special occasions, because the only way to get it is when he, his friends, or employees bring back the legal limit of 10 pounds per traveler with them to the Vineyard. At the VFW, Chef Deon uses local channeled whelk, which is a similar but different gastropod species. He explains that these “local conch” are native to the Atlantic Coast, and explains how he ended up using them here on Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s lived with his family since 2000. Chef Deon notes that using the Island’s own channel whelk fits right into the “locavore” culture.
Chef Deon says that anyone can go down to the water and pick up local conch themselves, or if you prefer to stay dry, you can find it at the Fish House in the airport business district. The conch are mating at the moment, and thus in seclusion, but will be on the market shortly, until about mid-December.
While you might be making everything conch with channel whelk, make no mistake, Chef Deon’s recipes all have a distinct Caribbean flair. The chapters are divided into “Small Plates,” “Soups and Stews,” “Pastas,” and “Main Dishes.” Since he includes salads and conch cocktails, the only things he’s left out are ways to use conch for dessert.
Certain types of ingredients are nearly ubiquitous throughout the recipes. For instance, virtually all include vegetables and some variety of hot peppers, garlic, and cracked pepper. His dishes contrast hot and mild and/or sweet. For example, the alluring Menemsha Conch & Vegetable Crepe has carrots, sweet onion, pineapple juice, chayote (green pear-shaped tropical fruit that resembles a cucumber in flavor), parsley, and cilantro balanced by minced jalapeños, pickled ginger, hot sauce, Dijon mustard, and pepper flakes. Even the accompanying Up-Island Mango Salsa has the piercing accents of crushed pepper flakes and grated ginger.
The Tropical Conch Salad, which is a popular dish on every Caribbean island, uses a Scotch bonnet pepper to contrast with the milder flavors of the chopped conch tenders; fresh pineapple and diced mango; lime, orange, and passion fruit juice; lemon zest; peppers, sweet onion, celery, and cilantro.
For snacking, there are plenty of fried options, such as the tempting conch fritters, conch cakes, fried Buffalo Conch Tenders, Rosemary Conch Twists/Sea Fries, and Coconut Conch Bites.
For something a bit hardier, Chef Deon gives us Martha’s Vineyard Conch Chowder, which has a rich base from the magic ingredient of pumpkin, instead of cream, that he matches with cornmeal spinners. You might also be surprised by the inclusion of caramel, fish sauce, and Cuban oregano in his Conch Stew with Asparagus Tips. Should you choose to take on the challenge, you can make Conch Sausages that include the perhaps unexpected ingredients of dark beer, gumbo filé (spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American sassafras tree), smoked paprika, chia powder, allspice, anise, and liquid smoke.
Chef Deon doesn’t use cream but rather coconut milk as a base in his wildly popular Braised Conch Meatballs in Coconut Ginger Broth or Conch & Mango Curry, and even in his New England Conch Chowder, which is like none you’ve ever had.
Want to mix up your usual Italian pasta fare? Try the Tagliatelle Mari Monte, which Chef Deon writes is a favorite dish in his restaurants “owing to the fresh pasta trend. Fresh tagliatelle is paired with Island-grown shiitake mushrooms and local harvested conch,” or the Conch & Broccoli Penne in sundried tomato pesto, or Tea-Smoked Conch Ravioli & Tomato Sage Butter.
He saves the final chapter for Main Dishes, which include conch made jerk, BBQ, or sweet and sour style; Martha’s Vineyard Conch and Coconut Risotto; Conch Burgers; and last but not least, Island Conch Pizza with plenty of garlic and mozzarella.
The 105-page softcover cookbook is packed with photographs by Randi Baird that certainly tempt you to try your hand at Chef Deon’s delectable recipes. If you want to start out simple, there are two fast and easy recipes: Three Onion Conch Spread and Sundried Tomato and Smoke Conch Spread, both of which include anchovies that add that elusive umami quality.
Chef Deon shares his raison d’être for his cookbook at the end of the Introduction: “I am excited to be able to introduce local ‘conch’ to you. By sharing my authentic Island recipes with you and using freshly harvested whelk found here in our local waters, I hope to continue the conch revolution.”
“Chef Deon’s Island Conch Cookery” is self-published and available at his restaurant at the VFW in Oak Bluffs or Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven for $25 plus tax. A portion of the proceeds go to Island initiatives, particularly agriculture and fishing projects that “educate our children to be better stewards of our natural resources here on Martha’s Vineyard.”