The Sea as Pantry

On a charter in Belize, a talented local skipper serves up a fresh feast from the deep. "People and Food" from our August 2009 issue

belizean seafood 368

Andrew Hughes

This was a day made for lounging on the foredeck trampoline and gazing out over clear, calm waters. Add to the mix warm breezes and swaying palms, and my dreamy state would've lasted for hours. But other of my crewmates had mightier priorities. This was lucky for me, because it meant everyone would eat well-and I'd get a break from the galley.

On Lisa Michelle, the Moorings 4000 that friends and I had chartered for the week, we were afloat at Glover Reef, the southernmost of three extensive coral formations off the Central American country of Belize. Two of us had wanted to troll the flats for game fish, one of us had lined up three dives, and I'd planned to kayak. We were all veterans of these worthwhile distractions, but not one of us was as expert at catching enough food for dinner and satisfying hearty appetites as our local skipper, Jimmy Westby.

A charter in Belize isn't complete without the exploration of the nation's offshore atolls, which lie beyond its lengthy barrier reef, the second largest in the world. Bareboaters are required by the Belizean government to hire local skippers if they sail outside the reef, and that's why Jimmy was with us. Hailing from the southern town of Placentia, the extended Westby family members are lifelong fishermen. Their livelihood, and a good deal of their pantry, springs from the sea. The gathering of the evening feast was a daylong affair; just after 5 a.m., Jimmy had already helped us catch kingfish and barracuda off the stern of the catamaran. We'd barely iced those down when he moved the boat to a spot that was nondescript to all but his trained eye. He anchored, donned snorkeling gear, and disappeared beneath the surface of the water, only to emerge with bundles of sea moss, a kind of seaweed. These, he later explained, he'd take home, along with the barracuda, to his family. The sea moss would be used to make an eggnog-like drink. The barracuda would be filleted and grilled.

By afternoon, we'd relocated to an anchorage at nearby Southwest Cay. The rest of us took to our activities while Jimmy continued the hunt and retrieved several conch. He left the mollusks in the cockpit, then headed for shore. He returned to the boat with a bowl of fresh white flakes shaved from the inside of a coconut.

By the time we returned from diving, fishing, and kayaking, our appetites had rebounded with ferocity. While we cooled off with cold beer and showered, Jimmy was still hard at work, tenderizing the conch, dressing the kingfish, simmering the red beans, and rinsing the rice.

Needless to say, we enjoyed a dinner that night whose ingredients were beyond fresh. We devoured every bite, and though we all helped in small ways, setting the table and doing the dishes, no job could compare with Jimmy's painstaking preparation of good food so close to its origins.

Belizean Seafood Feast

5 queen conch (each yields 1 1/2 to 2
pounds of meat)
Soy sauce, to taste
5-pound kingfish
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup prepared barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tomato, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
McCormick Season-All, to taste

If you can't find conch or kingfish, substitute squid or diced cod for conch; for kingfish, substitute sea bass.

For the conch: Crack the shells of each and extract the meat. (For a step-by-step guide, see "Don't Underestimate the Humble Conch" by Douglas Bernon in CW's March 2007 issue.) With a winch handle, pound the meat of each conch for about 10 minutes to tenderize. Lay conch steaks on a large sheet of foil and add soy sauce, to taste. Seal foil and grill for 20 to 30 minutes.

For the kingfish: Clean and fillet kingfish into steaks and place on foil. Mix mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and soy sauce and spread on fish steaks. Top with chopped vegetables and season. Seal foil and grill for about 30 minutes. Jimmy served this with coconut rice, stewed red beans, and salad.

Serves six.