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Eel: A (belated) Christmas Miracle

Written By Culinary Pen on Saturday, December 27, 2008 | 7:38:00 PM

The first time I ever had sushi, I was hooked on eel. It was barbecued eel and absolutely delicious. All of the fish was great, but in and among all that raw tuna and salmon, the eel stood out. It fit naturally into my love of kippers (smoked herring), if not a bit meatier. I later tried to replicate this experience on my own, when I found a tin of eel in the Asian food section of Wegmans. Unfortunately, that tasted more like cat food than the transcendent gastronomic experience I was hoping for.

Other than that, I never saw eel. The first Time-Life "Good Cook" book I ever read, however, had a graphic description of "Dispatching an Eel." Basically you wrapped a towel around its head, rapt the head sharply on the cutting board to stun it, then cut down into the spine. Then you make a small slit down the neck to loosen the skin. Then, using a pair of pliers, you grasped a nub of skin and dragged backward, taking the skin off like whipping off a sock. So clearly, eel were out there, waiting to be enjoyed by the home cook.

Tonight, in search of salmon for gravlax, I saw them. Four long, silvery black tubes, each about 16" long, cooling in the seafood display case. I had to take at least one home. Luckily, they were only $10 each. Eel tagged and bagged, I walked away, without a clear idea of what I intended to do with this thing. At home I found a tupperware container of Korean noodles my brother Steve had made earlier in the week. There were fully cooked and seasoned, so I just made a quick glaze of brown sugar, sherry vinegar, soy sauce, ancho chili powder, cayenne chili powder, and a splash of olive oil.

I boned half of it into little filets, but then decided to just chop the rest into 1" sections and eat around the bone. It was just one small spinal cord, without any pin bones, so I didn't think it would pose that much trouble. Tossed in the glaze, I cooked them at 375 for 15 minutes. The results were very promising! The eel had a slightly unctuous, gelatinous flavor, like black cod, but a flavor similar to plain herring, but not really as oily.

I was very happy with the results, but in a way sort of sad that this may be the only time I cook them for several more years. One interesting thing is that I've never seen it served raw, despite its prevelance in sushi. Also, in his cookbook, Chef Morimoto says he always serves it cooked, so perhaps theres a risk of parasites in eating it raw. Ah well. Next time I'm thinking I'll try it fried, English style. Or maybe I can finally try out that "Good Cook" recipe for an eel terrine...
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