I couldn't decide whether to dispense with the frogs at the store or take them home alive. It's not often that I'm presented with the opportunity to slaughter my own dinner. The thought of the amphibians hopping and jumping around in my kitchen settled the matter. I asked for two frogs. A woman grabbed two from the bin and placed them inside a large plastic bag, and handed the bag to the fishmonger.
[Warning: NSFsqueamish-or-frog-loving-people content ahead.]
While the frogs were still in the bag, the butcher knocked them out with one quick blow of his cleaver. Off went the heads! He peeled off the skin - like a diving suit, the skin shimmied off in one long piece.
Then he eviscerated them, cleaned them, and handed them back to me (neatly packaged, of course.)
Back in my kitchen, I placed the frogs onto a plate. The frogs lay there with their little hands and feet up in the air, very pale and very still. My plan was to keep them in the refrigerator overnight and cook them the next morning. I started to sprinkle the bodies with salt. As soon as the salt went on, the appendages began to move. I recoiled in shock. Was it normal frog-behaivor, post-mortem?
After 20 seconds or so the quivering turned into a restless jig. The legs twitched violently, pumping up and down as if they were getting ready for one last hop. Then the forelegs began to pump too, with their spindly fingers grasping upwards towards me. The chests heaved up and down as if gasping for air.
I waited for the twitching to subside. Instead, the muscle spasms continued ceaselessly, growing ever more urgent as the minutes went by. I couldn't take it anymore, so I put the frogs into the refrigerator and went to bed.
The next morning I checked again. So far, so good. No strange movements or twitching of any kind.
During prep, I chopped the frogs into sections, soaking the parts in a marinade of soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch. It was only after I had washed the green onions, turning around to face the plate of frog meat, that I noticed that the lower half of a leg was still moving. It was severed from the thigh, but it was still twitching and flopping. Weird, I thought.
Every inquisitive cook needs her own Harold McGee to consult at a moment's notice. Mine happens to be a theoretical physicist and my childhood friend, to boot.
I called and explained, regaling him with all the lurid details.
"I think the muscles twitched because the sodium activated the sodium channels of the muscle nerves," he said. "In a live animal, signals between and within the brain and muscle cells are maintained with ion channels. One of the ions that our bodies use is sodium." Then he paused. "You know, sodium chloride, as in.....salt."
"But these frogs weren't alive," I objected. "When I sprinkled salt on them, they'd been dead for hours."
"Sure, but their cells had probably not broken down," he replied.
"It's similar to the famous experiments by Galvani, when he got dead frogs to move by electrocution," he added.
"What famous experiments?" I said.
"You know, the famous Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, who inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and prompted the creation of the word 'galvanized'—literally, shocked into action."
"Oh right. That famous Italian scientist."
"Anyway," he ended cheerfully, "You don't need to get into the specifics of how ions are involved. It's quite complicated and I'm not too sure myself."
So much for theories. Know how to get a frog to stop twitching? Stir-fry it!
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor."
- 2 cups oil for passing through
- 2 frogs, skinned and gutted, or a dozen frog legs
- For the marinade
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or sake
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 egg white
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- A pinch of ground white pepper
- For stir-frying
- 2 tablespoons of lard, or more vegetable oil
- 2 medium-sized bell peppers, cut into 1/4 inch long slices
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, crushed slightly
- 1 green onion, sliced into 2-inch segments
- 1/2 inch section of ginger, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1/4 cup stock, chicken or vegetable
- For the slurry
- 2 teaspoons starch
- 2 teaspoons cold water
- 1/2 teaspoon fermented black beans, chopped finely
To prepare the frog: Partition the legs into the thigh and lower calves. Cut the body cavity in two, crosswise, leaving the arms intact. Then, taking the part with the arms attached, chop the body in half to produce two identical sections. Blot with a paper towel to get rid of any excess blood, and set aside.
To marinate the frog: Beat the egg white until it is frothy, and combine it with the alcohol, cornstarch, salt, and pepper in a medium-sized bowl. Add the frog sections and mix gently so that each piece is coated in the marinade. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, or preferably for several hours in the refrigerator.
In your wok, pour enough oil to come up approximately 1 to 1.5 inches on the sides. Over medium high heat, bring the oil to 325 degrees. In rapid succession, slip each piece directly from the marinade into the hot oil. Cook until the meat is lightly golden brown, about two minutes, turning once after sixty seconds. Using a wide-mesh strainer, gently transfer the pieces of frog to a colander or rack to drain.
Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the oil in the wok, and add 2 tablespoons of lard. Briefly, let the wok gather more heat for ten to twenty seconds. Add the sliced bell peppers and jalapenos; stir-fry for two minutes until the bell peppers are still crisp but beginning to soften around the edges.
Add the garlic, ginger, green onion, and fermented black beans. Stir-fry for about 10 to 20 seconds, until the garlic is lightly browned.
To make the slurry: In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch into the water, adding the finely chopped fermented black beans at the end. Have the bowl on hand. You may need to briefly re-mix the slurry right before you use it.
Return the pieces of frog back to the wok and pour in all of the stock. Simmer over low heat for about 10 seconds; then add the cornstarch slurry and stir it around the pan to mix it evenly with the rest of the ingredients. Let simmer gently for about 30 to 60 seconds, until the vegetables and frog are evenly coated with the stock, which will have thickened with the cornstarch slurry. Serve immediately.