When you live on a boat there’s nothing more satisfying than catching your dinner from the sea. Sometimes, you get more of an adventure than a meal, particularly when you’re not sure how to prepare it.
One beautiful bright morning on charter we anchored Avenir II off Green Cay just east of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. While Mike took the men to the reef to hunt for lobster, Queen Triggerfish or other fish, I took the rest of our group to the sand spit to collect dead shells on the beach along with tiny beautiful bits of pink coral. Finding few shells, we took to the reef and found a large pile of dead, pearly Astrea Tuber or Starshells. Only one of them was alive.
A number of dead shells together is a sure sign of an octopus lair. Aha! There it was, mostly hidden in the rocks nearby, but barely noticeable because it blended perfectly with the dark brown rocks. When it saw us it pulled further back into its den. We called the mighty hunters over, feeling smug that it was us, not the men, who had found the octopus.
Well, Well! Octopus hors d’oeuvres tonight or pop him into the bouillabaisse, maybe? But first we had to catch the critter and this wasn’t a task for squeamish fingers. You couldn’t take his rocky haven apart because it was solid. And octopuses have the strength of ten men, so we couldn’t pull it out either. So it meant getting Mike and the men and the spear gun. They came and they shot the octopus.
Before we could grab it, someone shouted, “Look out! Here comes an eel!” It was a fair-sized Spotted Moray Eel and it made a beeline for the octopus, disdainfully ignoring eight pairs of legs. It lost the scent once, hesitated and raised its head to sniff, then turned directly for the hole. Quicker than any of us could move, it had that octopus in its mouth and tore off an arm.
“Hey! That’s my octopus!” cried Mike and he proceeded to clobber the eel with his spear. That didn’t thwart Mr. Eel an inch. It lunged at the octopus again so Mike shot it. We had never cleaned an octopus nor an eel. We assumed you had to get the skin off so we first cleaned and soaked the octopus in vinegar, then used lime juice to loosen the skin. With much grouting and clomping of teeth, we gradually peeled the skin off with pliers and fingernails.
Next, a quick dip over the side (not the octopus, the cleaning team) and the second preparation began: tenderizing the octopus. Meat whackers, whiskey bottles, your husband’s head – anything hard is good! But you gotta beat that meat until either your arm falls off or your cutting board cracks! Suitably tender, we chopped it up and fried it in batter accompanied by a hell fire hot sauce.
The eel was good, too, as it tasted just like fish. But you had to eat it in small bites because the tiny bones were a problem. We learned much later that eel were carriers of ciguatera and that we shouldn’t have eaten it. However, with eight people consuming it, none of us had more than a few bites of it.
And what about the Astraea Tuber? Of course, we ate it too after desanding and boiling it.
Jeannie Kuich, once a long-time charter chef in the Virgin Islands, has been writing monthly columns for the Daily News since 1985 and periodic columns for Caribbean Boating, Nautical Scene, St. Thomas This Week and Cruising World magazines. Jeannie is the author of “Soap Operas of the Sky”, the only stargazing sky guide for the Caribbean.