The Redemption of the Eelpout

Amy Thielen / Heavy Table

You can tell a lot about Minnesota anglers by checking out the fish they throw away. In other words, they’re a mite spoiled, and tend to cast out a lot of interesting fish that could have been thrown into a cast-iron pan instead. Rock bass, northern pike, local crayfish… most of these outstanding freshwater specimens find their way back over the side of the boat.

But the most unsung hero-fish in all of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes just might be the eelpout, a bottomfeeder with an ugly mug and a disturbingly oversized gut paunch. Also known as burbot or freshwater cod, the eelpout (which is not in fact related to eel, though it has a habit of curling its tail into a helix) is considered a table fish in other regions of the world. But here in the land of plenty-of-fish, eelpout takes the prize as the most downtrodden trash fish of them all — ritually fished just once a year, with great faux-fanfare, and eaten only in jest. This year during eelpout season, I planned to set the table straight for eelpout. The goal: Attend the Eelpout Festival in Walker, MN to get a live one, skin and fillet it, pan-roast it, and prove that they could be good eating.

If proven right, this could easily turn into an all-you-can-eat situation. Eelpout thrive in the large, deep lakes in Minnesota, such as Leech, Gull, and Winnibigoshish. Usually they lurk in deep water, but when it’s time to spawn they rise to the surface. Suddenly they’re latching onto every kind of bait that moves, like a bunch of crazy groupies. Ice fishermen sitting on an eelpout nest can’t throw them back down the hole fast enough; usually, they toss them onto the ice to freeze solid or expire, whichever comes first at 20 degrees below zero.

Lace/Hanky Photography, LLC

Sometime around 1980, the ridiculousness of the eelpout situation struck a group of Leech Lake ice fishermen as unbearably comic, so they decided to hold an Eelpout Festival to celebrate these fool fish. Now every February when the eelpout spawn, thousands of people swarm Walker Bay on Leech Lake, ostensibly to participate in the contests for biggest eelpout or best ice-fishing house, though a cursory glance will reveal the truth: a bank of glowing faces lit not from frostbite, but from the warm late-winter party vibe within. As nature-derivative as any good pagan holiday, the Eelpout Festival inspires its participants to gather on the lake in the searing arctic sunlight in their furs and mukluks, to exercise their trac-vehicles and to lift adult beverages (encased in fox-fur beer cozies) according to ceremonial schedule. It should go without saying, they also come to worship the only fish with a beer belly.

Snagging a few unwanted ‘pout was easy. A person who seemed to be in charge gave me a plastic bag and permission to take a few fish from the central holding tank. Just scooping up the eelpout was challenging; not only are they slimy, they’re seemingly spineless and prone to clinging to your arm. Minutes passed at the tank of wheezing eelpout — some still respirating — before a nice lady in a white mink Daniel Boone hat finally dragged one out by the mouth and dropped it in my bag.

The festival favorite, deep-fried eelpout, underperformed: The breaded jacketing caused the fish to break out in an oily sweat inside. Dense and fatty fish, such as eelpout and salmon, don’t take well to deep-frying. Other ‘pouters agreed and insisted I try it boiled in brown-sugar water, then dipped in melted butter. Poor man’s lobster, they said.

That sounded a bit bland, so upon returning home, I did what I always did in professional kitchens when unfamiliar fish came in the door: I pan-roasted it. It’s like searing a steak. Using no breading, you just season the fish with salt and pepper, saute it over medium-high heat in a little oil until well-browned on the underside, flip it, and cook another minute or so.  Then you add a big lump of butter, some garlic or herbs if you want, and start basting it, spooning the butter in foaming waves over the fish until the center tests tender and done.

Pan-roasting is like the little black dress of fish cookery. Neutral and flattering to most types of fish, it is a universal flavor-booster. Between the crispy, seared surface and the butter basting, pan-roasting can’t help but add succulence. All the restaurant kitchens I worked in used this method to cook most kinds of fish and seafood, from salmon to striped bass to monkfish.

Speaking of tasty but hideous-looking bottom feeders, let’s consider the monkfish. Popular on menus on the East Coast, it’s known as ugly fish, or poor man’s lobster. With a gaping black maw of a mouth that tapers down to a slimy, disturbingly gelatinous tail, monkfish looks a lot like — you guessed it — our little eelpout. And I had a hunch that it would taste and behave in the pan like it too.

I skinned my eelpout, just to take a look at its body structure. (A nail or a large hook stuck through the head would have helped tremendously in this operation.) I cut out two long cylindrical pieces from alongside the backbone, just as I would a monkfish. After trimming them up, the usable yield wasn’t high — but I don’t see how it could be when I’m throwing away about three pounds of the gut. (What is that slipper-shaped ivory thing inside the eelpout, anyway? Anyone? ‘Pouters? An enlarged fatty liver?)

Amy Thielen / Heavy Table

I rolled one fillet in a mixture of crushed coriander seeds and peppercorns, following a recipe I once used for monkfish, and I dusted the other with a mixture of three paprikas: sweet, hot, and smoked. Then I pan-roasted and butter-basted them both in separate pans.

It was hard to say which was better. Both had crispy edges and lush, juicy interiors, but the rusty, carboned surface of the paprika ‘pout really floored me. Meaty and delicate at the same time, the fish had that addictive flintiness usually reserved for food cooked in cast-iron over an open wood fire.

No other way to say it: The ‘pout was fantastic and, hands down, it ranked among the best fish I’ve had here. Eelpout, that ugly dog, tastes so much better than walleye and is so much easier to catch. That is, easy to catch but hard to hold onto.

Pan-roasted paprika ‘pout

1 medium eelpout, filleted and skinned (each fillet weighing 4 oz)
¼ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp ground chipotle (substitute any chili powder)
1 tsp sweet paprika
salt
2 tsp canola oil
2 tbsp butter

Combine the paprikas in a small bowl. Season the fish with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with the paprika mixture.

Heat a pan over medium-high heat and add enough canola oil to film the bottom of the pan. When really hot, add the fish and sear on one side until dark. Flip and add the butter to the pan. Cook, basting the fish with a large spoon, until the fish tests tender when poked with a fork or toothpick. Serve right away.

Pan-roasted pepper crusted ‘pout

1 medium eelpout, filleted and skinned (each fillet weighing 4 oz)
4 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp black peppercorns
salt
2 tsp canola oil
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp minced parsley

Toast the coriander seeds and peppercorns in a small pan over medium heat until fragrant. Crush roughly in a mortar or in a spice grinder. Season the fish with salt and pepper and then sprinkle with the peppercorn mixture.

Heat a pan over medium-high heat and add enough canola oil to film the bottom of the pan. When really hot, add the fish and sear on one side until dark. Flip and add the butter and parsley to the pan. Cook, basting the fish with a large spoon, until the fish tests tender when poked with a fork or a toothpick. Serve right away.

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11 Comments

  1. Teresa M 05/14/2010

    Shoot, now you’ve done it… gone and let the world know how delicious eelpout are! Now I won’t be able to offer to “take those ugly buggers off your hands” when fellow anglers catch these slimy devils. Great article; thanks for the ideas.

  2. I think the main reason they’re tossed away is preparation difficulty. They are trickier to clean than most, same goes for northern and bullheads. Any heehaw can fillet a crappie it takes a little more skill to pick a pikes bones.

  3. Author
    amyrose 05/14/2010

    is that Teresa Marrone? (If so, please accept my thanks for Abundantly Wild, which I use all the time . . .)
    and ryanl, I think that’s true. And the yield isn’t good on an eelpout. But I don’t think they’re as difficult to fillet as Northern Pike. Northerns are trickier yet, for me.

  4. “…the only fish with a beer belly.” Good one. “…little black dress of fish cookery.” Another. It’s high on my list to try eelpout this year. Some Michelin-starred restaurant in southern France has it on the menu, I read recently. I’ll bet that mystery organ is the liver, Amy. I had monkfish liver at Prune in NYC last fall; they billed it as “foie gras of the sea,” but I was underwhelmed. I’ve had better whitefish livers along the South Shore.

    A technical or semantic point, perhaps, but the burbot’s physiognomy doesn’t say “bottom feeder” to me. Bottom dweller, perhaps? Folks in eastern Wisconsin also call this fish a “lawyer.” I don’t know where that comes from.

    Great piece.

    Brett

  5. Amanda 05/17/2010

    Should we be looking forward to your Paprika ‘Pout restaurant/ice house at Eelpout next year???

  6. Author
    amyrose 05/17/2010

    not a bad idea . . .

  7. Will 12/17/2012

    This video from Alaska shows the best way to clean burbot (aka eelpout). If you skin them first and then remove the fins, you can get a LOT of meat off of the fish. Look at the size of the belly fillet that he takes. Cool stuff. Here’s the link:

    http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=anglereducation.burbot