We’re continuing our explorations of Italian ingredients and techniques outside Italy, writing posts that we hope will eventually comprise Volume II of Almost Italian.
It was only a matter of time before scungilli would grab more column space. So when The New York Times gave some recent ink to the rediscovery of whelks by that city’s chefs, we thought we should serve our readers a little holiday treat from our new book. Thus, we’ve brought back our four-year-old post with step-by-step instructions for cleaning and cooking scungilli. Like making our own cavatelli, marinara, and Easter Pie, we think cleaning fresh scungilli is worth the trouble, and that’s why we included those recipes and many others like them in our book.
Whether you use the related, but less flavorful species that are sold in tins, or buy your own channeled whelks, live, in their shells, you can enjoy both the marinated salad and pasta with red sauce recipes below.
Whether you invite scungilli to the Feast of the Seven Fishes or simply enjoy them with pasta, they make a celebratory meal to share with those you love.
Buon Appetito e Buon Natale !
Scungilli, very large marine snails, are firmly fixed in Italian-American cuisine—whether served chilled in an insalata di mare or hot in a marinara sauce. The cold-water species, Busycotypus canaliculatus, channeled whelk, is the one most commonly gathered in New England by those who still bother to fuss with the snails’ labor-intensive preparation. Their meat is dense, chewy, and quite sweet. Larger Italian grocery stores may stock frozen scungilli and most carry tins of “conch”—though the latter are usually different species, from warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Asia.
Although they are not as popular today as calamari, or even octopus and eel, scungilli would be one of the dishes a skilled nonna might prepare for a holiday spread, especially for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
While cooking scungilli is molto semplice, their cleaning has been described as penitential. That’s why a 29-oz can of prepared scungilli costs as much as $26. Nonetheless, the ease of digital photography has inspired us to pick up where Nonna left off. In this post we will document the cleaning of scungilli for current and future ‘Almost Italians.’ So, if someone brings you a 50-lb bag of live whelks, gather all hands and follow these directions. Then, you can freeze your prepped scungilli meat to use on short notice throughout the year.
Try to get some seaweed with your live whelks. Rinse the shells and seaweed in clean water. (Scungilli shells may be encrusted with barnacles. Don’t bother trying to remove them.)
Place an inch of water (preferably sea-water) and some seaweed in a large pot. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and steam the whelks for 10 minutes.
Remove the pot from the burner and uncover. Lift the shells from the pot with tongs. Place them on a cutting board or large plate until they are cool enough to handle. With a short paring knife or narrow metal spatula, lift open each snail’s operculum, a hard, horn-like oval window protecting the opening of the shell. It may stick to the snail meat or it may come right off. (See photo # 5; the operculum is in the foreground.)
Gently wedge the blade into the shell and let it help you pull out the coiled snail flesh and “attachments” in one piece.
The snail parts you want to keep stop at the dark part of the coil, the snail’s digestive tract. Cut that off and discard.
Cut each of the snails cross-wise in half, to expose the internal digestive tract. Rinse each piece well, leaving an empty channel (Photo # 7)
With a very sharp knife, carefully pare away the tougher dark bits on the outside of the scungilli pieces. This is for aesthetic reasons; reserve these dark trimmings to use in a tomato-based sauce (recipe below).
Set aside the pale, waxy and (relatively) more attractive pieces of scungilli for salads or non-tomato sauces.
At this stage, the trimmed scungilli are still rather tough, but they will be further tenderized by the additional steps and preparations below. Freezing will also tenderize cleaned scungilli. If you slice the scungilli 3/8″ thick before freezing, it will only have to be thawed before marinating. The acids of the marinade will complete the tenderization.
If you’ve been curious (or nostalgic) enough to read this far, buon appetito! But if you don’t think that cleaning wild gastropods is how you want to spend your Saturday afternoon, you can look for a deal on another species…
Insalata di Scungilli
8-10 oz. Fresh scungilli (cooked, cleaned, and sliced as above)
I /8 tsp Finely chopped fresh garlic
1/2 Medium Bermuda onion sliced in very thin rings
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (peperoncini)
Rind of one lemon, grated
Juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp fresh oregano, finely snipped
1-2 Tbs red wine vinegar
2 Tbs Extra virgin olive oil
1 Large, vine-ripened tomato, coarsely chopped (about 8 oz.)
1/4 Cup finely sliced celery
1/4 Cup coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 Tbs Fresh basil, finely snipped
Leaves from one heart of Romaine lettuce
In a 1-quart mixing bowl or other non-reactive container, combine the first 11 ingredients; stir to combine. Cover and set aside in a cool place for at least 30 minutes before serving. You may combine and chill these ingredients up to 12 hours ahead of serving.
Just before serving, add the remaining ingredients and taste for salt and acidity, adding a little more vinegar or oil, to taste.
Serve in small bowls. You may tear the lettuce into large pieces and toss with the scungilli or keep the leaves whole, adding them as crisp garnishes to each serving.
Serves 4-6 as an antipasto or salad.
Scungilli alla Marinara
8-10 oz. Prepared scungilli, finely diced (1/4 inch pieces)
3/4 cup clam broth or any liquid left from tinned or thawed scungilli (optional)
2 Cups of My Grandmother’s Marinara Sauce
1/4 Cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
2 Tbs. Snipped fresh basil
Additional sprigs of parsley for garnish
1 lb cooked gemelli or other short pasta
In a large, non-reactive saute pan, simmer the marinara sauce, scungilli, and any additional broth or liquid for 20-30 minutes.
Cook the pasta according to directions, but drain it when it is slightly underdone.
Add the drained pasta to the marinara and allow it to cook in the sauce till it has reached the al dente state. Stir in the herbs and serve the pasta and sauce in shallow bowls. Garnish with parsley sprigs.