Worst meal ever

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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.

The eel hunt

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.

Slippery as an ___

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.

The wild mushrooms

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.

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Comments

  1. Oooooh. I will be sure to really enjoy, and appreciate, the eel I have as dessert this Tuesday for my sushi birthday dinner, both of which are now firmly traditions. I mean having sushi on my birthday and finishing it with eel for dessert.

    Buck up. They can’t all be winners. At least you tried- I don’t think I would have even attempted it, and that’s because I’m a great big wienie.

  2. The technique I’ve heard about and seed demonstrated is to nail the eel’s head to something sturdy, then make a cut all the way round just below the head, then use a good pair of pliers to simply peel the skin off like a sock. That might eliminate the need to address the slimy skin. Sorry this one didn’t turn out. Better luck next time.

  3. Ryan Folan says:

    Hey Tamar and Kevin. It was a pleasure meeting you at the mushroom walk. My girlfriend and I tried some of the wild mushrooms last night – a little scary. The Agaricus was good with a piece of steak. Green Russula was eghh, not bad, but nothing I’d try again. But the Gyroporous castaneous (Chestnut Bolete?)was a bit different – good for its texture and flavor. We also had fresh oysters and some scallop ceviche, caught yesterday morning with my pops. Talk about a rich meal. I really like the website, I’ll be a regular. Take care.

  4. Tamar

    An admirable commitment to wild eating, and as enjoyable as ever to read.
    I’ve always used the method kate describes to skin eels, works [nearly] every time.

    Cheers
    SBW

  5. When I was about 8 or 10, I caught a 3 foot eel with my fishing rod, off my parents’ 8 ft dingy down near Shinnecock on Long Island. My parents always tried to cook everything I caught, but this “took the bait.” My father took it to shore, nailed it to a board, and attempted the plier technique (I don’t recall if it worked very well, but the thing was damn slippery). My mom then attempted to cook it on our 22 ft sailboat–I think she may have tried to make a stew out of it. It was 2nd worst only to our mackerel experience (this was before any of us ever thought to eat everything sushi style). I feel your pain. Better luck next time!

  6. Hey – it happens to all of us once in a while! Just think – if you let us in on how you are really actually perfect, how intimidated the rest of us would feel …..

  7. Paula — It was that kind of eel that was at the back of my mind when we bagged this one. Alas, what we turned out wasn’t anything like it. But I’ll try again, given another chance. Meantime, enjoy some eel for me, and make up the bad eel karma I put out into the world.

    Kate — I’m going to try that, next time. We opted to leave the skin on this time because we thought it would be better for smoking. But next time, I’m going with broiling, Japanese-style, and we’ll start by taking off the sock.

    Ryan — We were delighted to meet you on the walk, and I’m glad you tried all those mushrooms, as well. I agree that the G. castaneus (which is indeed the chestnut bolete) was the best of the lot, but my wild-mushoom bar has been set high by hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, which are absolutely delicious. Meaty, flavorful, dense. I hope you find one, so you see what I’m talking about (not that I’m going to tell you about my super-secret hen-of-the-wood tree, of course).

    SBW — Glad to have a second on the skinning technique!

    Dina — Ah, I love it when my blog brings back fond memories for my readers! I hope it wasn’t too traumatic for you.

    Madcat — Yeah, yeah, that was my plan — to keep my light under a bushel so nobody would be dazzled by my brilliance! So far, it’s working.

  8. Tamar,

    Sorry about the risotto, which I would have eaten. That part where both of you realized that the eel didn’t look so good, I felt was a bit of a hint you may have taken. I love reading your blog, and then stopping at Fresh & Easy on the way home for groceries. :0) The eel, however, was a masterful effort and way beyond any I would have made under the circumstances.

    Gayle

  9. Harrison is not sure he would eat eel..Jacob thinks he might.
    The nail thru the head technique sound like a good one..but Im with your friend gayle on the trip to the grocery store….

  10. We *always* skinned eels before cooking, but then again, Dad was the one who would skin them. I don’t remember seeing him nail the head to anything (it’s been 20 years). I think he just steps on the head (on the grass) with his work boots – I will ask. Our eels always came from the dam and/or creek, so they tasted a bit muddy. That was floured and pan-fried in butter.

  11. Gayle — I wouldn’t have let you eat it. As much as I hate wasting food, this one was beyond the pale. But I appreciate the moral support.

    Beth — Tell Jacob he earns big points for considering it, and Harrison that we’ll have him branching out in a year or two.

    Kingsley — That’s the fourth (?) vote for skinning it, and I’m convinced. But I may call your Dad and ask him to don his work boots and come on over to show us how its done.

  12. oh dear…i laughed so hard through this story I almost cracked my sides. my hub, the farmer, and me, the farmers wife make afine pair. he’s a real farmer, and if he lived next door would have known how to deal with your eal. Me? well, i would have been squirming around the kitchen with you trying to skin the blinking thing, and the risotto experiment sounds like last night’s dinner for us.

    what’s up next, i say!

  13. LOL! You kill eels by burying them in salt. That removes all the slime. You then either do the nail treatment or just anchor the head somehow and use needle-nose pliers to remove the skin. If you eat eel skin it’s fine, but gelatinous. Asians tend to leave the skin on.

    A brine on an eel of normal size would normally be overnight — tops. I’d brine in the morning and cook at night.

    I like chestnut boletes, but they do have a squnchy texture….

    Oh well, better luck next time!

    h.

  14. This made me laugh…. The one and only time I tried to cook wild mushrooms, they came out the consistency of eels (all slimy and disgusting). You actually added Eel to the mix 🙂

    I hope you try again someday… 🙂

  15. Eels freak me our when they are alive …. not sure I would want to eat them. Thanks this post gave me a good chuckle. Just what I needed on a wednesday morning!