Summer this year certainly wasn’t the best I’ve ever had when talk of fishing is the topic of discussion. There were a few days when it seemed my son and I could do no wrong in anything we tried but there were a whole bunch more when our hardest efforts went for naught. But that’s also when harvesting only the largest of soft shell turtles caught with conventional tackle for catfish turned most of our failures into appreciation for one the most delectable and truly unique creatures meant for table-fare on our planet. I have in the past submitted recipes on other websites for Turtle Soup and Mock Turtle Soup, both of which are very good by the way, but this presentation is a generalization of my procedure with the real thing in my kitchen and just one of the turtles that had a live weight just over eleven pounds. The scrap weight is usually about sixty percent once the meat is flayed from the shells but left with bones in, and of course the weight of those bones in the legs, neck, and tail may account for another five to ten percent after removal. I’d guess the scrap rate would go higher with hard shelled turtles like snappers and sliders but I have never killed any turtle species other than soft shells here in New Mexico.
My process for turtle soup begins with making stock from meat trimmings and bones. Bones from spare ribs, short ribs, neck bones, etc., are brushed with bacon grease and placed in the oven or on a grill to sort of char on the outside. When that’s done I’ll put them in a pot with trimmed meat pieces along with various vegetables, seasonings and what not having 2-3 cups of total volume loosely bound in a cheesecloth bag, then add enough water to cover everything and bring it to a boil. Then I’ll reduce the heat and let it simmer a long time before pouring everything through a colander so as to separate the juice from the solids. I’ll throw out all the bones and undesirable stuff but keep everything inside the vegie bag and all the liquid. Place the vegetable bag into the same pot holding the liquid and put it in the refrigerator or set it somewhere outside the kitchen where cold night air will cause the fat to rise and coagulate on top –the way oil floats on water. Clean the kitchen, dudes.
On the morning of the next day I skim off as much of the hardened fat as I want to mess with and throw it away. Then I put the liquid and the vegie bag into a two gallon crockpot, add the turtle meat, set the temperature to low, cover the pot, and wait eight hours. Turn off the heat and set the crock outside to cool overnight. Next morning, bring the pot in and spoon away any more hardened fat that may have accumulated. Warm up the crock on low heat and begin making the roux. Make the roux whatever color you like but I love a really dark one and will always recommend the darkest as the best. You can make it loose or make it thick (like the one in the photo) but walking away from any roux on heat is never a good idea. Get it done and set it aside. By then my turtle meat was just warmed to touch and easily picked from the bones. The vegetable bag was extracted from the stock and thrown away. The same pot used for making the roux was set on medium heat, a stick of butter thrown in while chopped fresh vegies consisting of onions, garlic, and green bell peppers were made ready to sauté when the butter was sizzling hot. Cooked to the point where caramelizing starts, turtle meat and additional seasonings were added. Hunks of turtle meat picked from bones the same way as stewed chicken, baked turkey, roast beef or pork, will appear to be no different from the aforementioned meats when it begins to shred in the pot after constant stirring. When all the liquid in the pot is gone and the meat begins to sear, it’s time to put in the tomato puree, the meat stock, the roux whisked in, lemon juice, bay leaves, and sherry. While that’s coming back to a boil to be set for simmer when it happens, I’m cleaning spinach. Yep! Six bunches of fresh spinach washed and rinsed of all the dirt. After that all the stems must be cut from the leaves before the final rinse and chop or else there’s going to be a lot of them in every spoonful. They don’t taste like spinach, in fact they have a bitter taste when chewed raw, and they’re kind of strange to swallow even if you don’t mind gulping down pieces of something that has all the appeal of a shredded bird’s nest. But once all the stems are cut from the leaves it’s time for a final rinse and dry before coarse chop and transferring into the pot.
So, now that all the ingredients are in and on the way to an end it’s time to clean the kitchen again. The soup needs to simmer slowly for an hour or more; covered just enough to prevent a rolling boil but keep things steeping hot. The aroma alone is enough to make me think starving to death is going to happen before it’s time to eat long after kitchen windows had begun to fog, so there’s no more worry knowing all is well in spite of the process being long. Served in a bowl with a splash of sherry before garnishing with a spoon each of hard-boiled egg crumbled and finely minced green onion, this is a presentation that on its own mere appearance with big chunks from a hard-crust loaf of sour dough bread on the side and a glass of sherry says, “Eat Me.”
Recipes do vary, but for me the process of making my own stock one day, stewing the turtle meat in the stock overnight in a crock pot, and building the soup on the second day makes staying at home on a weekend worthwhile.
Hat Tip to: INDASWAMP