Wednesday, March 9, 2011

a word on frogs and the many ways they taste good

It is once again time for frogs. In the beginning of March, before the season closes for a couple of months, a brief window exists for the harvesting of wild bullfrogs (Rana catesbiana) in Louisiana. The weather has just warmed up enough for the frogs to shake off their winter stupor, and the crawfish haven't started coming in heavy (the arrival of the crawfish is important because no one wants to mess around with frogs when there's money to be made in crawfish). Before getting to the hows and whys of frog cookery, I hope the reader will permit a brief (and hopefully relevant) explanation of the Louisiana frog fishery...

The overwhelming majority of fisheries in the United States are both large and industrial. Commercial concerns like it this way, as a larger share of the market is guaranteed (if you want fish, and all that is for sale is salmon, you're probably going to buy and eat salmon). State and federal regulatory agencies like it as well, as industrial or fleet fisheries are easier to manage. Unfortunately, this means that our choices of seafood and fisheries products are limited. It also means that a great many products are simply not available commercially, as the time invested seldom brings an adequate reward to the harvester. Artisan fisheries are by and large a thing of the past, except in a few pockets of the US.

The good news is that Louisiana is one of those few spots where small-scale commercial fisheries are still alive, which brings me to frogs.

No one catches frogs anymore as a full-time job. The money is just not there. However, lots of folks do catch frogs when there is little else going on. As I was recently told by my frog guy, "They do it to have a bit of fun and to make ends meet until the main fisheries start up again."

Allow me an explanation of how the frogs are harvested. Two men go out in a small boat, armed with nothing but a spotlight. Frogs are of course nocturnal, which dictates night-time hunting. One man steers the boat close to shore or substrate, and the other man hangs over the front edge of the boat, shining his light at the shore. When a frog is spotted (their eyes shine in the glare of the light), the boat eases over and the spotter grabs the frog by hand. Hand nets may legally be used, but by hand is the preferred method. On an exceedingly good night, a boat might catch 100 lbs. of frogs....and that's live frogs. Dressing the frogs out (heading, skinning, and gutting) takes half the weight. So, two men out all night fishing, and they might end up with 50 lbs. of ready-to-sell product. It takes only a few moments of reckoning to realize that no one is going to get rich on frogs.

The price of domestic frogs is an issue, and one that is rarely examined. Certainly, the price of Louisiana frogs is several times higher, but, given the harvest methods and regulations, this should hardly be surprising.

Now, on to cooking. As I wrote above, we get our frogs in headed, gutted, and skinned. They are, at this point, ready to cook. Though most folks are familiar with only the legs, the rest of the frog is quite useful as well, and really this is the best way to use the frog, both in terms of economy as well as taste. The frogs generally come in two sizes- small (4-9 to the pound) and large (less than 4 to the pound). Both are equally good, though the large frogs have a better meat yield.

I love eating frogs, and my wife and kids eat even more than I do (I suspect that my wife loves them so much because she doesn't have to catch them anymore). At my house, we often make soups, stir-fries, and curries using the whole frog. Simply hack the body up into several pieces, and use like that. Admittedly, using the frog thusly will necessitate picking small bits of meat from the bones with your fingers....which shouldn't bother anyone, considering that, the last time I checked, all animals have bones, and all meat that humans eat comes from animals (until they perfect Soylent green or Mr. Singer has his way). Using the meat like this also has the added benefit of flavor- frog bones make a tasty sauce.

Or, the whole frog may be battered and fried (which turns eating around the bones into a crunchy tasty pleasure), or the frogs may be skewered and grilled, as is commonly done in the north of Thailand (though there they leave both skin and heads on).

Of course, one may use the legs for the 'meat' and the torsos for the sauce (as Mr. Gossen does when making his famous sauce piquante).

Whilst working in France, we fabricated the legs into 'hams', then cooked the torsos, pulled the meat, made a nice garlicky ragout, and served the ragout with the 'hams', which was a noble use of the whole animal.

Finally, you may simply cook the frogs whole in a flavorful broth, then pull the meat and use in any number of recipes (Mr. Grossman at Branchwater Tavern produced spectacular pot pies with pulled frog meat). Don't forget to pick all the torso meat, making sure not to neglect the slips of meat covering the shoulder blades, the 'skirts', and the rib meat. Though there's not much there, the differences in texture and flavor is wonderful and adds a great complexity to any dish...sorting of like using all the bits of meat off a pig's head.

So eat some frogs and remember that, as always, I've only scratched the surface concerning frogs and their potential in the kitchen. Louisiana frogs will never be a staple item at our tables, but they make a delightful seasonal treat- and a treat which may be traced directly back to the waters of the Atchafalaya basin and the communities that have survived there for hundreds of years. Just try tracing Chinese frogs back to the source.

Mangez les grenouilles, et pas que les cuisses!!