In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, it's all. In Italy it's anguilla. In Portugal it's eiro. In Yugoslavia it's jegulja, in Greece it's cheli and in Japan it's unagi
Here it's eel, but by any name it still conjures up a snakey, slick creature toward which only the most adventurous American cooks are not squeamish.
In fact, the eel is not a snake at all; it is a fish, but mythology has fed and reinforces our squeamishness. Aristotle thought that eels rose spontaneously from mud, which does little to make them seem palatable. In ancient times in Great Britain, eels were thought to evolve from weeds and others thought they originated from horse hair dropped in water. In Italy, ancient fishermen were convinced that eels were the offspring of water snakes, while in Sardinia, aquatic beetles were considered the mothers of eels.
With such poor and exotic press, it's little wonder the eel has failed to gain popularity in this country. Eel as food fish is extremely popular in Europe, but because of its unfortunate resemblance to a snake and the unwillingness of cooks to give it a fair culinary chance, the eel lags far behind other food fish in America.
All Atlantic eels originate in the Sargasso Sea, that part of the ocean south of Bermuda and 1,000 miles east of Florida. The eel larva begin traveling coastward immediately after hatching, and reach the coastal waters when they are about 1 year old. At this point they are called elvers, though they are simply small eels.
Tremendous numbers of these elvers enter our tidal estuaries and marshes in spring. They mature in the brackish waters, the males tending to stay in river mouths, the females going up river. When it is time for spawning, the females come down river and join the males for their move out to sea.
Eels are trapped in Chesapeake area waters and are widely used for baiting crab lines. However, little attention is paid to eels as table fare. This is an oversight; eels of all sizes can be cooked.
By far the most popular method of cooking fresh eels is frying. For this method, eels in the 1- to 1 1/2-pound range are ideal. The flesh of eels is very firm, and therefore requires longer to cook than other fish.
Large eels to be used will even require pre-poaching in water to which salt and lemon juice have been added. Simmering about 15 or 20 minutes will prepare the meat for use in other recipes.
Very thick pieces of eel should be pounded like veal cutlet, as the firmness, characteristic of eel, will permit it to burn on the outside before the inside is properly done.
Once an eel is properly cleaned and prepared, it can be steamed, broiled, baked, fried, stewed or used as a component in a dish such as bouillabaisse.
Eels may be bought at fish markets alive and whole, whole and gutted or as fillets. In local waters, they may be caught in eel pots or with hook and line.
Once you have an eel, how do you clean it? If you have a live eel, the easiest way to kill and deslime it is to put it in a container of coarse salt. Some fishermen put sand on their hands when handling eels, to get a firmer grip on the slippery fellows. Other wear gloves to avoid contact with the slime, which can be difficult to wash off.
Here's how to proceed: Slit the neck of the eel and tie a stout string around it. Fasten the string to a nail or a wall hook and pull the skin off with pliers. Then slit the stomach and remove the entrails. Wash the eel thoroughly. Cut the eel in pieces the size that the recipe calls for. One handy trick is to cut a slit along the backbone of each piece, so it won't "jump" in the frying pan. Some cooks think it is a good idea always to parboil eel pieces 2 to 3 minutes.
Unattractive as the eel may appear to many of us, it is prized as a great delicacy in many cultures. Somehow, smoked eel doesn't set our sensitivity so much on edge, as it appears ready to serve in many delicatessens. Indeed, this is probably a good introduction for touchy palates. Dedicated gourmets will experiment with the fresh eel.
More reluctant cooks might consider this poem from the annals of New Hampshire history around 1719 to give some idea of the esteem our ancestors granted the wriggly eels: From the eel they formed their food in chief And eels were called the Derryxl field beef; It was often said that their only care, And their only wish, and their only prayer, For the present world and the world to come, Was a string of eels and a jug of rum. -- Leonard A. Morrison So, cooks with a firm grip on their imaginations and a firm grasp of their heritage may want to try these recipes for eel cookery. SMOKED EEL WITH HORSERADISH SAUCE (2 to 4 servings)
1 or 2 smoked eels
4 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
4 tablespoons ketchup
Skin the smoked eel and cut into 2-inch pieces. Arrange on platter. Blend other ingredients into a sauce and serve with the eel. GRILLED SMOKED EEL JERICHO (2 servings)
2 smoked eels
FOR THE MUSTARD SAUCE:
1 tablespoon prepared mustard blended with 1 cup drawn butter
Skin the eel, wash and dry thoroughly. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Broil over charcoal fire until hot and serve with the mustard sauce. FRIED EEL (2 to 4 servings)
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for frying
Skin and wash the eel and let stand for 10 minutes in water to which the lemon juice has been added. Cut into 2 1/2-inch pieces and roll in seasoned flour. Fry in very hot oil (around 360 degrees), allowing 3 to 4 minutes for each side, depending on size. BAKED EEL BRENTWOOD (2 to 4 servings)
1 large eel
1 tablespoon salt
Pepper to taste
li,2 FOR THE SHARP SAUCE:
li,2 2 egg yolks, 1 hard-cooked, 1 raw
1 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup whipped cream
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Skin and wash the eel, rub salt on it and let stand several hours. Drip the juice of a lemon on it. Place in a greased baking pan, season with salt and pepper, add a little hot water and bake at 450 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Arrange the eel on a platter and serve with sharp sauce.
To make sharp sauce, press the hard-cooked yolk of an egg through a sieve and mix with a raw yolk. Gradually whip in olive oil. Add dijon mustard, wine vinegar, worcestershire sauce, pepper, salt and sugar. Just before serving, mix with whipped cream and chopped dill. Serve in a sauce boat. EEL SOUP (4 servings)
1 small eel
2 tablespoons capers
5 sprigs parsley
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
Croutons for serving
Skin and cut up eel in bite-size pieces. Simmer in 3 pints salted water until tender. Drain. Remove eel with slotted spoon, reserving liquid. To the liquid add capers and parsley and bring to a boil. Melt butter, blend in flour and add carefully to liquid, stirring constantly. Let simmer about 10 minutes until broth is slightly thickened. Return eel to soup and serve with croutons. EEL WITH TOMATO SAUCE (2 to 4 servings)
1 eel, cut in pieces
1 onion, sliced thin
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano
6-ounce can tomato sauce
Layer the eel and the onion slices in a greased baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar, salt, pepper, basil, oregano and tomato sauce. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. EEL ASPIC (2 to 4 servings)
1 eel, cut in 1 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup vinegar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon pickling spices, tied in a bag
1 tablespoon gelatin, softened in 1/4 cup water
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered
2 small tomatoes, quartered
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Cover the eel slices with the vinegar and water. Add the spice bag and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the gelatin. In a mold, arrange the eel, eggs and tomatoes attractively. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the spice bag and pour the cooled, cooked liquid over the arrangement. Chill until firm. Serve on lettuce.