Out There: Serving up snappers

  • Also see Keith Sutton's earlier column "The trouble with turtles."

    Snapping turtle soup was a favorite in our family when I was a kid.

    My grandmother often prepared it using turtle meat acquired from a local fisherman who caught and sold common snappers.

    The soup usually was served as the appetizer for a huge Sunday lunch. I remember steam pouring off the tureen full of meaty broth.

    Grandma would add some sliced hard-boiled eggs just before serving it, then we'd dig in. The adults often added a tiny glass of sherry to their soup, as well; it's a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.

    It's been a long time since I have run across anyone who's tried snapper soup. It seems to be a dish of the past, perhaps because turtle meat is now a hard commodity to come by.

    In most towns, you can't go down to the neighborhood turtle man any more to get the makings for your soup. You'll probably have to catch your own if you want to sample this delicious creature.

    I still prepare my own snapper soup, on occasion, as well as other dishes featuring the tender, delectable meat of these reptiles. Many folks claim the flesh has the combined flavors of pork, beef, veal, fish and chicken.

    Roger Conant in his book "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America" (part of the Peterson Field Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Company) included a simple design for a turtle trap that can be used for catching snappers. You probably can find this book in your local library, at a bookstore or on-line.

    Snappers also can be caught on hook and line and using other means, as well.

    But be sure to check regulations on taking turtles in your state.

    In most areas, only common snapping turtles can be kept, and a license of some sort is required before you can possess them. The much larger alligator snapping turtle is protected in most states where it is found.

    When you have captured a snapping turtle, you then are faced with the dilemma of preparing it for cooking.

    It's not as difficult as it might seem, but it probably will take some practice before you are proficient at it.

    If possible, have an old-timer teach you the ropes; but if you find there's no such animal where you live, then jump right in and try it yourself. It's well worth the effort. Here's how I do it:

    First, dispatch the turtle. In my opinion, this is best done by shooting the turtle in the head with a .22 bullet. You must take care, of course, not to allow the snapper to bite you in the process.

    When the turtle is dead, carefully sever the head at the top of the neck; some reflexes may still be present. Use cord or wire to hang the turtle by its tail and/or hind legs in an area protected from insects and allow it to bleed out for an hour or so.

    Next, cut through the narrow connection between the turtle's upper and lower shells. Crowding the top shell very closely, use a fillet knife to cut it free, detaching the ribs from the top shell with a heavy knife or hatchet. The four legs and the neck can now be removed and skinned.

    After rinsing them of blood, soak the turtle pieces in cold water with a bit of baking soda added to firm them. The yellow fat should be removed as it adds an undesirable flavor to the meat. Now your turtle meat is ready to cook.

    Many people prefer turtle merely rolled in flour and browned in hot grease. But because you've gone to all that trouble catching and dressing your turtle, why not try some recipes that are a lot tastier? Here are some of my favorites:

    Grandma's Turtle Soup

  • 2½ sticks unsalted butter

  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 pound turtle meat, cut into ½-inch cubes

  • 1 cup minced celery

  • 2 medium onions, chopped

  • 1½ teaspoons garlic, minced

  • 3 bay leaves

  • 1 teaspoon oregano

  • ½ teaspoon thyme

  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1½ cups tomato purée

  • 1 quart beef stock

  • Salt

  • ½ cup lemon juice

  • 5 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley

  • 6 teaspoons dry sherry

    Melt 2 sticks butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the roux is light brown. Set aside. In a 5-quart saucepan, melt the remaining butter and add the turtle meat. Cook over high heat until the meat is brown. Add celery, onions, garlic and seasonings, and cook until the vegetables are transparent. Add tomato purée, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the roux and cook over low heat, stirring, until the soup is smooth and thickened. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice, eggs and parsley. Remove from heat and serve. At the table, add 1 teaspoon sherry to each soup plate.

    Creamy Turtle with Mushrooms

  • 1½ pounds turtle meat, cubed

  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine

  • ¼ pound fresh mushrooms, chopped

  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • 1 cup white sauce

  • ½ cup cream or half and half

  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

    Brown turtle meat in butter heated over a medium flame. Add mushrooms, cayenne, salt and lemon juice. Sauté 15 minutes or till turtle is tender.

    Heat white sauce (see instructions below) in a separate saucepan, preferably in the top of a double-boiler. Add cream, chopped eggs and turtle-mushrooms mixture. Heat thoroughly. Serve piping hot over buttered toast placed on preheated individual plates. Garnish each serving with chopped parsley.

    White Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine

  • 2 tablespoons flour

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup milk
    Melt the butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat. When it starts to bubble, add flour and salt and mix to a smooth paste. Stirring constantly, slowly add milk and continue to stir until thickened. Immediately remove from heat and set aside for use in your recipe.

    Turtle Fricassee with Wine

  • 3 pounds turtle meat

  • Salt

  • Red pepper

  • Flour for dredging

  • ½ cup dry white wine

  • ¼ cup onion, chopped

  • Juice of 1 lemon

  • 1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped

  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine

  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon

    Rinse turtle pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and red pepper. Dredge in flour. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Brown turtle pieces on all sides, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Drain off oil. Add remaining ingredients, cover, and continue to cook for about 45 minutes or until tender.

    Turtle Sauce Piquant

  • 1 stick butter

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 1 medium bell pepper, chopped

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 stalks celery

  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped

  • 1 (10 ounce) can Ro-Tel (or the equivalent) green chilies and tomatoes

  • 1 (16 ounce) can tomato paste

  • 2 tomato paste cans of water

  • 1 smoked sausage link, sliced in bite-size pieces

  • 2 pounds turtle meat

  • Creole seasoning

  • Cayenne pepper

  • Salt

  • Worcestershire sauce

    Melt butter in large pot. Add onions, bell pepper, garlic, celery and green onions. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 20 minutes. Then add Ro-Tel tomatoes, tomato paste and 2 cans of water. Simmer 40 minutes over low heat, then add the sausage and season to taste with Creole seasoning, cayenne pepper and salt. Add the turtle and cover. Do not stir sauce again until ready to serve. Let cook 1½ hours on low heat. Serve over cooked rice.

    To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. "Duck Gumbo to Barbecued Coon," a game cookbook he wrote with his wife, Theresa, is available at www.catfishsutton.com.