Gordon has been sea fishing and cooking since childhood. He loves coming up with tasty ways of cooking his fresh catch when he gets home.
What Are Jellied Eels?
Jellied eels is a concept which was developed and rapidly grew in the East End of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The eels used were silver, freshwater eels, taken largely from the River Thames. They were boiled in water and spices before being chopped up and potted. The natural collagen in the eels emulated gelatin, causing the poaching liquor subsequently poured over them to set like jelly.
The freshwater eel population in Britain as a whole has diminished drastically in recent years, so this recipe sees the silver eels replaced with the saltwater eel that is conger eel. The recipe has also been amended particularly to separate all bones and skin from the eel flesh before the meat only is subsequently jellied.
Conger eels can grow up to 12 feet in length and weigh upwards of 300 pounds. Big eels like this, however, would not be suitable for eating as the flesh would be far too tough. If taking a conger eel for the pot when fishing, you would only want to consider a smaller eel (sometimes called strap conger eel), ensuring they are more than 36 inches (91 centimetres) in length to comply with current minimum catch size regulations. The eel portion used in the recipes on this page was around nine inches in length.
How to Prepare Conger Eel for Poaching
Conger eels do not have scales which would require removal prior to cooking as do many types of fish. This eel portion had also already been gutted. All that remained to be removed therefore were the dorsal (top) and anal (bottom) fins. This is best done with a pair of heavy-duty kitchen scissors.
Wash the eel and chop it in to steaks around an inch and a half thick. This makes for even cooking. You will find there is still some blood in the flesh so the easiest way to get rid of this is to blanche the conger portions in heavily salted water. Bring a pot of water (containing a couple of tablespoons of salt and deep enough to contain the eel portions) up to a boil. Carefully add the eel portions and simmer as gently as possible for a couple of minutes only.
Lift the eels from the water to a plate with a large slotted spoon. The water at this stage of the procedure should be discarded.
How to Poach Conger Eel
The poaching water for traditional jellied eels will include flavourants such as nutmeg, bay leaf and lemon juice. The reality is that you can add pretty much anything that takes your fancy. In this instance, the eel was accompanied in the water by a stick of celery (washed, trimmed and chopped), half a carrot (washed, trimmed and chopped) and half a white onion (peeled and chopped). Half a lime, four tablespoons of malt vinegar, four fresh basil leaves and plenty of salt and black pepper were also added.
You will later need at least a pint and a half of the poaching liquor to prepare the recipes on this page. For this reason, you should add at least two pints of cold water to the pot, as some of the liquid will be lost to evaporation.
Put the pot containing the eel and all the additions on to a high heat, just until the water starts to simmer. Reduce the heat and maintain the simmer for twenty minutes. Lift the eel portions from the water with a slotted spoon. Lay on a plate, cover and leave to cool. Put the lid on the pot and also leave it to cool.
How to Separate Conger Eel Meat From Bones
Jellied eels of the traditional type will frequently be prepared with the skin and even the bone in place. They are sucked off the bone (where applicable) as they are eaten. In these recipes, the skin and bone are going to be removed in advance.
When the conger eel steaks have cooled, sit a bowl beside the plate to hold the removed flesh. Using your hands, pull the skin off the steaks. You will see the flesh is arranged in cross-section in what are four quarters. Carefully pick the flesh from the bones, adding it to the bowl as you do so. This can be just a little bit tricky and moderately time-consuming but the end results more than justify the means.
Discard the skin and bones and cover the bowl of eel flesh.
How to Make the Jelly for Jellied Conger Eels
The jelly for jellied eels would traditionally be made by boiling the poaching liquor to further reduce it after the eel has been removed. Egg white and crushed shells (yes, shells!) will also frequently be added. Experience has suggested, however, that conger eels do not contain the same levels of collagen (natural setting agent) as their freshwater cousins so modern ingredients were used to serve the required purpose and cut down a little bit on the overall cooking time.
The initial recipes on this page (for the small ramekins of jellied conger eel) required around three-quarters a pint of setting liquid. It is important not to find yourself short, however, so use a pint of the reserved poaching liquor to be on the safe side. Measure it out and pour it in to a saucepan.
The setting agent used is leaf gelatine. This is fairly inexpensive and can usually be found in the baking aisle/section of supermarkets. As you want the eel jelly to have a bit of a wobble but not be set too firmly, use only half the prescribed amount of gelatine for setting a pint of liquid, otherwise follow carefully the instructions on the pack. In this instance, two leafs of gelatine were required to be soaked in cold water for five minutes before being squeezed out and added to the warmed liquid to dissolve. Be sure that you never allow the stock to boil after the gelatine has been added or you risk destroying some or all of its setting qualities.
Allow the gelatine-infused liquid to cool significantly but not to the stage where it starts to set before pouring it in to a jug for assembling your jellied eels.
Basic Jellied Conger Eel Recipe
This first recipe could be described as basic jellied conger eel. A teaspoon was used to spoon enough eel flesh in to the ramekin to just over three-quarters fill it. The liquid was added to both cover the eel flesh and come almost but not quite up to the rim of the ramekin. The ramekin is then left until completely cool before being placed in the fridge for a couple of hours (or even overnight) for the gelatine to do its work and set.
Jellied Conger Eel and Cockles Recipe
Two ramekins were filled with this particular combination. First of all, three teaspoons each of eel and drained pickled cockles were stirred together in a bowl and seasoned with some white pepper. It was then divided evenly between the two ramekins to three-quarter fill before the setting liquid was added.
Jellied Conger Eel With Green Chilli and Onion Recipe
In this recipe, half a large green chilli was seeded and finely diced along with around a quarter of a small, peeled white onion. They were combined with four teaspoons of eel meat and seasoned with black pepper. The mix was split between two ramekins and the liquor was carefully added.
Jellied Conger Eel With Onion and Parsley Recipe
This final recipe idea is similar to the one above but the green chilli is replaced by chopped parsley. The mix is again seasoned with black pepper before being added to the ramekins.
Serving Suggestions for Jellied Conger Eel
The platter which formed a part of this ramekin set was of practical use at this stage as well as ultimately providing an attractive presentation. The ramekins simply sat in place as they were filled before the dish was covered with a plastic food cover to let the setting liquid completely cool.
When the jellying eels were cool (an hour maximum) the serving platter was simply and carefully lifted to the fridge and sat on a shelf overnight. If desired, you could then simply take it to the lunch table the next day, provide a choice of accompaniments and let your family or guests help themselves. Alternatively, you may wish to try one or more of the serving suggestions included below.
Jellied Conger Eel and Cockles With Vinegar and White Pepper
This serving suggestion mirrors the way traditional jellied eels would be eaten either on a market street in East London or perhaps at a British seaside resort. One of the ramekins of jellied conger eel and cockles was additionally seasoned with white pepper and malt vinegar before the seasonings were folded rather than stirred through with a teaspoon and the dish was eaten with the same spoon.