The thing about hunting and gathering your own food is that there’s no quality control.
Sometimes, you come up with stuff that’s pretty tasty, like a striped bass. Other times, you come up with stuff that’s no so great, like a painted suillus mushroom. Then there are the times when you come up with something that could be pretty tasty, but has to be properly prepared. First time you come up with it, chances are you’ll flub it.
Yesterday was a confluence of not-so-tasty factors.
It started with an eel.
When we pulled the boat up to the dock after having spent the morning out on our oyster grant this past Thursday, Kevin spotted an eel hiding in the rocks. Now, in the right hands, an eel is a tasty morsel, so we got the net and the gaff out of the boat and went after it.
After a few near misses when the thing slithered out of the net, Kevin managed to get it on dry land. There, we could see it wasn’t in great shape. It’s possible it was somebody’s escaped bait – livelining eels for striper is pretty common.
We dispatched it with our handy dandy axe handle, popped it in the cooler, and took it home.
Kevin wanted to smoke it, so I cleaned it, gutted it, and put it in to brine.
This wasn’t so easy. Eels, in case you haven’t heard, are slippery. In fact, eels define slippery. They have this icky slime that makes them impossible to hold on to, even when they’re dead. In the slippery department, a banana peel ain’t got nothing on an eel.
In an attempt to de-slime my eel, I used a salt rub. I’d read that, if you give it a good exfoliating scrub with an abrasive salt, a lot of the slime comes off. After trying this method, I would say a little of the slime comes off. The rest stays on.
The next step was to use a knife to scrape the skin. A little more of the slime came off, but it got on the knife, in the sink, and all over the sponge I used to clean the knife.
Undeterred, I tried Round Two of the salt rub, and then another session with the knife. By the time I was finished, I could at least hold on to the thing, but I told Kevin there was no way we should eat the skin.
I made a simple brine, using equal parts sugar and salt, submerged the whole eel (minus head and tail) in it, and put it in the back of the refrigerator. I figured it would need a longer brine than the bluefish we regularly give the same treatment, so we decided we’d leave it in for 48 hours. That was Thursday.
On Friday, I got an e-mail about a mushroom walk in Falmouth on Saturday morning. Perfect timing! Smoked eel and wild mushrooms should be good together.
We met our fellow amateur mycologists at 10:00 Saturday morning, and set out through the Beebe Woods. There were mushrooms galore, and we collected samples of several different genera.
I noticed something, though. Everybody else on the walk was very focused on being able to classify each mushroom we found. There was some real expertise in the group, and every time we found something new, they’d all put their heads together to try and identify it. They’d point out the detached gills, or the sticky cap, or the pink spores, and zero in on genus and species.
I, on the other hand, had only one question: can you eat that? If the answer was no, that’s when I moved on to the next. Everyone else was there in the pursuit of knowledge. I was there in pursuit of dinner. Something to go with my eel.
I came home with three kinds of edible mushrooms: a few chestnut boletes, a bunch of wine-colored Agaricus (that’s the genus of the button mushrooms you see in the supermarket), and one old-man-of-the-woods. If I worked in a couple of my own shiitakes, and a few dried porcinis, I figured they’d make a nice wild mushroom risotto.
I cleaned them and sautéed them in butter, and the best I can say is that they were passable. None of the three species is what I’d call delicious. But they don’t taste bad, and have the undeniable virtue of not being poisonous.
So I worked on my risotto as Kevin smoked the eel. We opened the wine.
When we took the eel off the grill and tasted it, it was immediately apparent that we’d brined it too long. It was very salty. But I thought maybe I could incorporate a little bit of it into the risotto.
That’s what I did. And, for the very first time in my cooking life, I turned out something I’d call inedible.
I took one bite.
“Honey,” I said to Kevin, “This is the worse meal I’ve ever made.”
He pushed his plate away.
“No, no!” I protested. “You have to try it!”
He looked at me, puzzled. “Why?”
I considered. “For posterity?” I wasn’t convinced, and neither was he.
But Kevin is a good sport, and he pulled his plate back and took a bite. A small bite, but still.
He chewed, and looked at me thoughtfully. “Do you suppose the chickens will eat it?”
This is first time I’ve ever thrown out an entire skilletful of food. We put it in the compost, and the chickens did eat it, but even they didn’t seem overly enthusiastic.
I’m not going to tell you exactly how I made this monstrosity, because my self-esteem couldn’t withstand the assault of your telling me exactly where I went wrong. I know where I went wrong. It was when I left Manhattan, and its predictable, familiar food supply.
Still, I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who can make a good meal out of some lackluster wild mushrooms and somebody’s escaped bait.
Just not this time.