Last week on Top Chef, contestants broke out their filleting knives for a Quickfire challenge judged by guest Eric Ripert, chef and part owner of the world famous French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City.
First up to fillet were sardines—-hard to debone because of their small size but pretty standard fare. Next came arctic char—-much bigger, still fairly familiar. Then came something rarely seen on dinner menus, much less in home kitchens—-freshwater eel.
We at Pop Omnivore wondered why we knew so little about eel as food. So we decided to investigate.
According to Larousse Gastronomique, eels are “snakelike fish with a smooth slippery skin." The culinary encyclopedia then goes on to say, "Eels are sold alive. They are killed and skinned at the last moment as the flesh deteriorates rapidly, and the raw blood is poisonous if it enters a cut – for example, on one’s finger.” Cooking the eel detoxifies its blood.
On the show, Chef Ripert told contestants that the eels had just been killed and were definitely dead, even though they continued to move. Though the movement is strictly nerve-related and not a sign of life, it can be, well, unnerving. Says Ripert, “They will move for hours. Seriously, for hours.” Indeed, many of the chefs looked squeamish as they dealt with the rather gruesome process of peeling and filleting their challenge.
In America, we don’t see much eel for sale. “I think a lot of people are scared by the fact that they look like a snake, and I don’t know too many chefs that enjoy receiving eels at the restaurant,” says Ripert. We’ll spare you the details about the killing of the slithery fish, but Ripert puts it rather succinctly: “It’s a very unpleasant process.”
In parts of Europe and Asia, however, eel is a more common sight on the plate. The French like to braise it with red wine and garlic. In Japan, where it’s believed that eel can boost stamina in hot weather, the fish is often glazed with miso and grilled. Scandinavians and Germans smoke their eel and serve it with rye bread, while the British put it in a savory pie.
So what does it taste like? “It’s not a very refined fish, and many times, they taste like mud,” says Ripert. Um, they taste like mud? “Yes, they live on the bottom, in the mud, and many times they acquire that taste. It’s a very earthy fish.” He explains that this is why strong ingredients, like wine, are often used when cooking eel—which is on the fatty side--to help mask that muddy flavor. On the show, the contestants did not have to cook their eel once it was filleted, but Ripert says he would have had them make a stew if the challenge had gone further.
Eels aren’t widely available in the U.S. but they can be found at some Asian markets. If you’re not interested in dealing with them live, just ask the fishmonger to do the “processing” for you. Remember, though, that they do continue to move for quite a while after they’ve been offed. If you’d prefer to prepare your eels sans the residual muscle movement, Ripert suggests keeping them in the refrigerator a day or two before cooking.
Finally, we asked the master seafood chef-- who will soon be starring in a PBS cooking show of his own--for a recipe, should any Pop Omnivore readers feel inclined to cook up some eel. We want to know who’s up for the challenge! P.S. If you can’t find eel, monkfish will be a fine substitute.
Matelote of Eel
2 pounds eel, peeled and filleted, reserving the bones
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 small shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups red wine, preferably Merlot
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup button mushrooms, washed and quartered
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2 tablespoons butter
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eel bones into 3 inch pieces. Heat a large sauce pan with the canola oil over medium high heat; when the pan is hot, add the eel bones and sear lightly. About 3 minutes.
Add the shallots and garlic and cook until soft. Add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock; bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
After the sauce has cooked for 10 minutes, remove and discard the eel bones. Season the eel on both sides with salt and pepper and add the eel, mushrooms, bay leaf and thyme to the sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
Finish the braised eel by stirring in the butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.