One of the delicacies of Lago d’Iseo (near my stage position in north-central Italy, east of Milano) is eel.
One of the many questions faced by cooks, posed by near and dear friends, the incredulous and the frightened, is “How do I cook the eel I just bought (or was given)?” (This is, I will admit, one large step up from “What the hell IS that thing?”)
Goodness, we think, was eel left off the curriculum somewhere? What to do ... what to do ...
Quit squirming. All of you.
Yes, friends, it has come time on this blog to deal with the eel question. And have I got a few hot tips for you today! No more eel confusion is necessary.
Let us assume, just for the moment, that you are eel-less. Don’t let that stop you! Just giddy-up to the nearest eel store (I like Diana Seafood in Toronto, or the St. Lawrence Market) and do what comes naturally. Buy an eel. For cooking. And eating. Also get a lovely bottle of good white wine, and start it chilling as soon as you can. The eel will be hot and smoky, and you want to offset those notes with a good foil.
If you wish, get the shop to remove the head and tail and guts and any fins and scales. Otherwise you will do this step at home. Don’t be squeamish! This can be a real adventure.
Take the eel home. Don’t try to entertain it ... you’re going to eat it ... it is not a pet.
Prepare your workspace as follows ... you will need to be near the sink, and will need a couple of medium-sized trays or platters, and a rubbish bowl (usually called a ‘prep bowl’ in a well-filled kitchen), a filleting knife and your reading glasses, if you use them, as some of the work will be pretty close. A good cutting board which will go into the sink or dishwasher later is needed, and you might want to have a roll of paper towel handy.
Your filleting knife will need to be VERY sharp.
Scrape away scales with the back of a knife, if you did not have the shop do this for you. Rinse under cold water.
Put the eel on the cutting board and remove the head and tail, and put these in the prep bowl.
Slit the belly and gut it ... throw the guts into the prep bowl with the head and tail. These will all eventually be tossed (unless you want to later make a fumet). Use sharp kitchen scissors to remove any spines, fins, etc. that are still on the eel, and add these to the prep bowl.
Now, with the filleting knife, carefully remove the bones. If you find it works better for you, carefully cut the eel open along the top of the back, and fillet it from the top down. Keep the meat in as few pieces as possible. Keep the skin on the meat.
As you get the eel meat ready and off the bones, lay it in the largest possible pieces on the tray(s). Try to keep pieces about 15 cm long.
OPTIONAL SMOKING SECTION:
Next, you may want to smoke your eel meat. This is certainly do-able. Many people will revolt at this point, saying “My eel smoker is broken!” Not to worry ... you can do your smoking on the stovetop. (I mean, you can smoke the eel on the stovetop.) Or you can (and this is the better option) smoke it outdoors in a proper smoker.
Either way you choose to do it, be careful at all times! You, as a cook, are responsible for your safety first.
If you want to smoke the meat but need to get things ready for this operation, the eel can be put into the refrigerator and stored for no more than 1 day.
To do stovetop smoking, you will need two pans of the same size. The pans are going to be a dreadful mess at the end, and you might want to just slip out to GoodWill or a similar socially-responsible recycling operation and get two old pots. You will also need a small wire rack, and some wood-chips.
Take the wood chips and put about 1.5 – 2 cm of the chips evenly in one of the old puts. Put the wire rack on top of the pot, and lay the eel meat on the rack. Then invert the other pot on top of the first, to make a leaky, smoke-filled cavity. TURN ON YOUR KITCHEN FAN TO HIGH and deal appropriately with your smoke detection system.
Turn on a stove burner that is the same size as the bottom pot to its second-highest setting and put the home-made smoker on the hot ring for about 10 – 15 minutes. If it seems to be starting on fire, throw a cold, wet towel onto the whole thing and remove it from the heat, but leave it closed and it will smoke pretty well anyway. Turn off the heat at about the 5 minute point ... the smouldering chips will do the trick.
At the end, take the whole rack off the lower pot and put it on the counter to let the meat rest. Let the chips cool or pour some water onto them to end any smouldering.
An alternative you might try is to paint on some liquid smoke. I have never tried this, and can’t recommend it one way or the other. But it is available. If you do try this, please write back to this blog and let us all know how it works.
END OF SMOKING SECTION
To cook the eel, carefully cut the pieces (fresh or smoked) into bits about 2-3 cm long. Put these into an ovenproof metal pan which has been prepared with a good slather of EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and some torn fresh basil, and bake the eel for about 10 minutes (convection oven, longer in a still oven) at about 200°C. Try to have the pieces of eel standing up (i.e., the skin will be on a side, not lying down or on top) in the EVO and basil. If you have good pans which are Teflon lined, do not try to omit the EVO and basil! Each is necessary for the success of the dish.
You will know it is done when the meat starts to flake slightly and open into layers.
When it is done remove from the oven to the counter and let it rest for 3 or 4 minutes. Open the wine at this point (if you have resisted so far!) Pour a generous glass for all present.
Plate onto a bed of mild risotto made without cheese, or roasted shallots stewed in wine (my preference – make this the day before). Garnish with a little more fresh torn basil and a drizzle of very high quality EVO. Serve with genuine pride (and a sense of relief and accomplishment!).
Cheers! I am sure you’ll go ‘ead over eels for this dish.
There! Now, don’t you feel confident and adventurous?
A short comment on prep bowls ... I encourage every person who loves to cook to get a collection of small and medium-sized prep bowls. Usually these are inexpensive stainless steel. I get most of my equipment at Nella (various locations in Toronto). We have 12 small prep bowls at home (about 20 cm across) and 5 that are about 35 cm across. They store easily and are useful for huge numbers of operations. Once you start using prep bowls, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do things this way before. You can store things in them that are not too acidic, they can go into the frig, stand on the counter, are useful at any B-B-Q, cool quickly, warm quickly, hold no flavour and have good ‘cling’ qualities if you need to use plastic wrap (but you can usually just invert a plate onto a prep bowl and that works as well). They make great gifts to any cook or kitchen, and don’t cost much.