Grim's Grub: The ugly, tasty eelpout
A look at an exotic recipe perfectly suited to an ugly fish.
Lota lota. lawyer, ling cod, burbot or eelpout, whatever you want to call it, most people can agree they are a strange fish.
Eelpouts are almost all tail and fin like their oceanic namesake, and they have the uncanny ability to articulate their entire back end, effectively allowing themselves to wrap themselves around things.
Though anglers catch them right off the bottom of the lake, their reputation as "bottom feeders" doesn't do the burbot justice. The term suggests a sort of scavenger that eats rotten flesh and plants and maybe bugs, but in reality they are voracious predators.
Pouts will devour northern pike fingerlings, perch, other fish eggs, sunfish, minnows of many kinds and virtually any other fish that shares a body of water with them.
I recently caught my very first pout on Leech Lake during the daytime spawn bite using a weighted glow spoon loaded with six crappie minnows that I pounded off the bottom for attention.
Anglers who like pout often prepare them the exact same way. After fileting the ample meat from their tail, this firm white fish can be boiled and eaten dipped in garlic butter. They call this "poor man's lobster.” It is equally delicious fried.
Burbot are the only remaining freshwater relative of cod, and as such share some qualities with their oceanic relative, including a mild tasting flesh and nutritious, oily livers. The second was what attracted the interest of dietary supplement companies going back as far as the 1920s.
Around that time a man made a discovery while raising foxes for their furs. Those fed a supply of burbot had fur that outshone those who were not. The man's son, a pharmacist, investigated.
The pharmacist found that burbot liver made up 10% of its entire weight and was rich in vitamins D and A to a degree equal to that of cods harvested for high grade cod liver oil.
This never went anywhere as far as I am aware; however, anyone from central to northern Minnesota is well aware of the economic boon that these fish served until 2019.
The International Eelpout Festival in Walker was once an annual fete not to be missed by fans of drinking and jigging.
It was the child of the minds of Don and Debbie Overcash, who owned Walker Drug, and Ken Bresley in 1979. Their idea wasn't immediately a winner. It was quickly turned down by the Walker Chamber of Commerce at that time, but they brought it to life using their own money.
The festival lasted until 2019 and reached national recognition in its time. An unnamed Pine River resident was immortalized at the event in 2011 during an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”
Sadly, the event came to an end after 40 years thanks to complacency of attendants who could not be bothered to pick up their trash before vacating the lake.
Today there may be no festival, but Leech Lake is still a destination for those who wish to catch this ugly, tasty fish.
For advanced chefs, if you want to try out the Asian recipe below, you will likely need to source szechuan peppercorns and douban jiang online.
Poor Man's Lobster
- 1 stick butter
- 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- Dash salt (optional)
- 1 pound eelpout filets
- 1 liter 7UP, Sprite or other lemon-lime soda (or water)
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, remove the pan from the heat and scoop off any foam or floating debris before mixing in the garlic powder and salt.
Prepare the eelpout by cutting it into 1-inch thick slices. Bring the 7UP to a boil before dropping pieces of fish into the boiling liquid, leaving space so you don't overcrowd and overcool the water. Once they float and appear to be cooked throughout, remove them to drain. Serve with the melted butter while hot.
Numb and Spicy Boiled Fish
Note: this is enough for one person. Increase this recipe for each additional person, or serve with ample sides.
- 1 thumb ginger
- 2-3 spring onions
- 2-4 cups boiling water
- 1 pound burbot, sliced diagonally into 1-inch slices
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- Splash white cooking wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 egg white
- 1 glug peanut oil or sesame oil
- Additional oil for sauteeing
- 2-3 cups bean sprouts, chopped cabbage or a mix of these or other crispy vegetables.
- 2 tablespoons szechuan peppercorns, toasted and ground fine
- ¼ cup dried chilis, seeds removed, sliced into ½-inch rings, toasted until fragrant
- 5 pickled chilis, chopped
- 4 minced garlic cloves
- ½ thumb minced ginger
- 1 small bunch green onions, chopped
- 2 tablespoons douban jiang paste
- 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon msg or fish stock powder (or both)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 cup peanut oil
Begin by using the flat of your knife to crush the ginger. Then chop the two pieces of onion into 2-3 inch long lengths and use the flat of your knife to flatten, roll and bruise the onions. In a bowl, add these along with the boiling water and set aside to make a sort of spiced tea.
Take your sliced burbot and add cornstarch. Mix this with your hands to coat the fish. Add a splash of the spiced tea, followed by a splash of white cooking wine, salt, white pepper, egg white and oil. You don't want the fish floating in liquid, but you want a sort of sauce to be coating the fish to marinate it. Set aside.
In a wok or pan over medium high heat. add enough oil to sautee the ginger, ⅓ the garlic, 1/3 the pickled chilis and the toasted chilis. Allow this to cook briefly to infuse the oils before adding the bean sprouts. Toss to coat the bean sprouts in the hot mixture and allow them to cook until barely wilted and hot. Remove this to a thick bowl that will resist thermal shock.
In the same wok or pan, add more oil to saute ⅓ the garlic and ⅓ the pickled chilis with the douban jiang. Stir this to break up the paste and help it release its oils. Once the ingredients have begun to release their aroma, add soy sauce and allow it to heat up. Add the remainder of your ginger and onion tea liquid, filtering out the solids.
Next, season with salt, white pepper and msg. Mix to combine before combining cold water with the remainder of the cornstarch to make a slurry, which you now add to the stock you are creating in the pan. Allow the mixture to come to a boil.
Add the fish one piece at a time. Try not to crowd them as they cook. Bring the mixture back to a light boil or simmer and allow the fish to cook throughout. Once cooked, use a slotted spoon to remove the fish so it sits on top of the bean sprouts cooked earlier. Add back just enough of your cooking liquid to cover the bean sprouts and just touch the fish. Most of the fish should still be sticking out of the liquid.
Heat 1 cup of peanut oil in a pyrex measuring cup in the microwave, about 3-4 minutes or until it reaches 300 degrees. While it is heating, add the toasted and ground szechuan peppercorns in a mound in the center of the fish. On top of that, add the rest of the toasted, dried chili peppers and pickled chili peppers followed by the remaining green onions.
Finally, the remaining chopped garlic should go on top of this mound of green onions. If eating with friends and family, do this final step at the table in front of them. Being careful to stand back, pour the boiling hot oil into the center of this layered mound of aromatics in a thin stream.The oil will cook the aromatics and pop while you are doing this. If you did not choose a heat proof bowl, it is possible it could shatter.
If you are eating by yourself, you can simply fish out the pieces of fish and the bean sprouts one mouthful at a time. If eating with friends or family, each may instead remove the fish and bean sprouts onto their plate, as this is a boiled fish recipe, not exactly a soup.
The remaining liquid may be brought to a boil and used to cook additional vegetables, Asian noodles, meats and other ingredients for what is called "hot pot.”
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.