Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Best Laid Plans: Eel with Bok Choy


Not every recipe I cook is a success. While I make it a policy to restrict the recipes I share here to those that do work, and work well, making dinner the other night was such an remarkable experience that I had no choice but to share it with you all.

The Pasta Burner and I were at the relatively new (or at least, under new ownership) fish market in Chinatown, Great Wall Seafood & Grocery (102 N 10th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107, (215) 928-1388), situated at the corner of 40th and Arch. It was a dream -- bright-eyed, fresh, briny fish, glistening, tight, cooing mussels, juicy-looking crabs in clean tanks. The whole place smelled like fresh salt water. A dream, if seafaring food is your thing. And for the Pasta Burner and I, it certainly is. We're going to be making a lot of recipes with the seafood from here.

So, did we go for something safe? A filet? A whole fish, that we could roast on the bone? Some mussels, ready to be steamed with Belgian beer and fresh herbs? Of course not. While all of those things are easy to make (and certainly, we'll have recipes for such dishes in time), one thing in particular caught our eye.

Live Eels.

Now, you may be saying, "Neal, I didn't know you knew how to cook eel!" The thing is, I don't. But filled with hubris, fresh from the roaring success of our fresh squid pasta, I felt indestructible. Surely, all the creatures of the ocean would fall under my sway, begging to be cooked by my skilled hands.

Well, that didn't exactly happen. We purchased ourselves an eel, a nice, healthy specimen, and, while we were allowed to take it away live, I asked if they could sever the head and take out the viscera (the Pasta Burner refused to get back on the train to West Philly with a live eel in our company). The owners of the shop were more than happy to comply.

But you see, the thing is, it didn't stop moving. Not for quite some time, in fact. Eventually, however, it succumbed to the forces of nature. The beast had been slain. I went back to my office, and then back home from there. It was two hours before I took the eel out to prep it for dinner.

And then, this happened:

Yeah. This continued for a good half an hour. It was slimy. It was squirmy. It was undead.

Neither the Pasta Burner or I saw this coming. Who knew that it such carnage would be involved?

I quickly looked at some resources. One suggested using pliers to peel the skin off --- PLIERS -- as it's very tough and rubbery.

Yikes. Others suggested pinning the head of the eel to the cutting board with a sharp knife or nail, and then gutting it down from there. We tried all these things. It kept thrashing. It kept rebelling. It would not die. (The food blog begins to be inexpicably written in the style of Hemingway.)

In all seriousness, a solution eventually came to me. I decided to blanch the eel in a pot of boiling water. I figured the hot temperature would kill the nerve impulses still racking the eel's body. After about 30 seconds in the water, the trembling subsided. From here, it was pretty easy. The skin, gelatinized by the hot water, came off in strips, and I filleted the eel from its spine with gentle care. The battle was over, although not without great carnage left in the wake of the great beast:

I did a simple marinade -- chili/garlic paste, Shao Shing cooking wine, and dark Chinkiang vinegar, a modified version of the Pasta Burner's own fantastic homemade dumpling sauce (and no, she's not sharing the recipe. Sorry!) The broth created an excellent hot and sour base, designed to play off the natural sweetness of the eel meat.

At this point, the eel sat for about an hour.

After that, it was time for the pan. The eel cooked up pretty nicely, and the Pasta Burner was nice enough to steam up some Bok Choy and make some rice.

A sweet/hot soy glaze (soy sauce, nori, corn starch, chili paste, chili oil) was tossed with the fish, and the meal eventually made it to the plate:

All in all, I'd call this one just short of an unmitigated disaster. There were points when the entire operation was almost abandoned, when the Pasta Burner was worried that the eel was going to try and kill me from beyond the grave (I was somewhat worried myself), where I realized just what kind of a quagmire I had gotten myself into.

We're going to cook lots more live and fresh food here at the blog, but we probably won't make live eel again. We've learned our lesson. But that's part of what this blog is about -- I'm here to learn, as much as I'm here to teach. Dinner was fine, if not spectacular, the meat sweet and hot, if still a little chewy. It's going to be a while until eel appears on this page again, if ever. So, in that way, perhaps you shouldn't consider this post a "how to," but rather a cautionary tale of sorts.

The next post is going to cure your eel-related nightmares, don't worry. Well, at least my eel-related nightmares.

Music: The Eels -- "That Fresh Feeling":


  1. Bravo on the bravado! The video is essential!

    Never skinned an eel, but I've skinned a catfish by nailing it to a tree and pulling the skin off with pliers. Sounds similar to the recommendation you found for eel.

  2. Joe -

    Just finding your blog via the evite to the April Food Blogger Potluck.

    Love the eel video. My favorite line is, "maybe we should just go out to eat". Awesome.

  3. sorry about calling you Joe. I don't know where I got that from.

  4. Hey, e!

    No problem -- glad you liked the video. Sadly (or not), that's a pretty typical day in my kitchen. :-P

    Thanks for reading! We update about once a week, and there's lots more on the horizon. Take care!

    - Neal

  5. Just found this through the nominations for best posts:

    Hilarious. I think I'll leave the eel making to my trusted local sushi chefs. ;)

  6. It's cool to know that we've been put up for nomination! Thanks for checking us out, and be sure to look around the rest of the site!

    - Neal


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