Jellied Conger Eel Recipes
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.
What is Your Experience of Jellied Eels?
Have you ever tried/would you ever try jellied eels?
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 (91cm) 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 PoachingClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 EelClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 to cool.
How to Separate Conger Eel Meat from BonesClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 EelsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The jelly for jellied eels would traditionally be made by boiling the poaching liquor to further reduce 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 following 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.
How to Combine the Conger Eel Flesh and Jelly
Basic Jellied Conger Eel RecipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
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. 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 RecipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 RecipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 carefully added.
Jellied Conger Eel with Onion and Parsley RecipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 attractive presentation. The ramekins were 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 PepperClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 eaten with the same spoon.
Jellied Conger Eel and Cockles with Pan Fried Herring FilletsClick thumbnail to view full-size
This jellied conger eel serving suggestion provides a real treat for all seafood lovers. A ramekin of jellied eel and cockles was served with two fried herring fillets, as well as simple bread and butter. The eel and cockles were again seasoned with white pepper and malt vinegar.
The fillets were firstly patted on their skin sides only in a little seasoned flour while a non-stick frying pan containing a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil was brought up to a fairly high heat. The herring were then laid in the pan skin sides down and fried until it could be seen from above that they were almost cooked. The skin protects the flesh during this time and will become crisp.
Turn the heat off and the fillets on to their flesh sides for about a minute. The residual heat will finish them off, at which stage they are ready for plating and eating.
Jellied Conger Eel and Green Chilli with Smoked PaprikaClick thumbnail to view full-size
This is an equally simple serving suggestion but adds a beautiful splash of summer colour to the plate, as well as a slightly Mediterranean slant to the dish. The Med is a part of the world where seafood of all types is of course hugely popular.
A mixed salad consisting of green salad leaves of choice, sliced bell peppers (capsicums) and cherry tomatoes was washed, shaken dry, seasoned with a little salt and laid on one side of a plate. A pinch of smoked paprika was folded through a ramekin of jellied conger eel and green chilli and the whole was served with a glass of chilled Spanish white wine.
Spicy Jellied Congor Eel with Green Chilli and Naan BreadClick thumbnail to view full-size
In this serving option, a pinch of hot chilli powder is stirred gently through a ramekin of jellied eel and green chilli. It is served with some reheated, packet mini naan breads.
Jellied Conger Eel, Onion and Parsley with Poached HerringClick thumbnail to view full-size
Herring again represents one of the random elements of this serving suggestion but here it has been prepared in a very different way from before, when it was fried. In this recipe, it has been poached/pickled in a way perhaps reminiscent of rollmops but ready in a couple of hours rather than a week or more. The flavour is of course consequently milder.
The herring fillet was added to a pot along with a 75/25 mix of cold water and malt vinegar to ensure it was fully covered. Seasoning was sea salt and black pepper. The pot was then put on a high heat just until the liquid reached a simmer, at which point the heat was turned off. The pot was covered and left for a couple of hours to cool. The herring fillet was then ready to be carefully lifted from the liquor and served.
The jellied conger eel pot is one of the parsley and onion ones and it was seasoned with white pepper and malt vinegar. Scottish oatcakes from the Orkney Isles were served on the side.
Jellied Conger Eel, Onion and Parsley with Tabasco SauceClick thumbnail to view full-size
For an ultra spicy serving of anything, you can't go far wrong with Tabasco sauce. It is vitally important, however, to be very careful as this stuff is hot! Add a couple or three drops, carefully fold through and taste. You may well not need any more.
Serve with some hot buttered toast.
Pie, Mash, Liquor and Jellied Conger Eel
One of the most popular places jellied eels could be found (and still can be, though to a far lesser extent) were the pie and mash houses of London's East End. These simple "fast food" outlets of yesteryear served pies originally made from eel alongside mashed potato and a liquor made from the eel poaching juices and parsley. The pie base would be of suet pastry and the top of shortcrust pastry. Jellied eels were/are also available. In later years, minced (ground) beef more commonly began filling the pies - along with perhaps whichever vegetables happened to be available - while chicken or other stock was more frequently used in preparing the liquor/gravy.
This final jellied conger eel serving suggestion is very much based on the food of the pie and mash houses - though it has been given its own little twist or two.
Prep time: 1 hour 30 min
Cook time: 2 hours 30 min
Ready in: 4 hours
Yields: One serving
Note: The above times do not include the time required to firstly prepare the jellied conger eel
- 6 ounces shin of beef (or other stewing beef)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ½ small white onion, peeled and sliced
- ½ small carrot, scraped and finely diced
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 pint fresh beef stock
- 4 ounces puff pastry
- 1 teaspoon plain/all purpose flour (plus extra for dusting rolling surface and pin)
- Butter (1 ounce/¼ stick for liquor plus extra for greasing ramekins and mashing potatoes)
- Beaten egg for glazing
- 2 large baking potatoes
- ½ pint eel poaching liquor
- 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
- White pepper
- 1 ramekin plain jellied conger eel to serve
- Malt vinegar
How to Make the Beef Pie FillingClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Chop the beef in to fairly small pieces but do not cut away the fat. The flavour comes from the fat and it also serves to keep the meat moist and tender. Any excess which does not render down during cooking can be discarded later.
- Heat the oil in a large pot and add the beef. Brown and seal, stirring with a wooden spoon.
- Season the beef with salt and pepper and add the onion, carrot and beef stock. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for two hours or until tender.
- Switch the heat off under the beef stew and leave to cool (at least an hour).
How to Cook and Assemble Mini Steak PiesClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Put your oven on to preheat to 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6.
- Measure the diameter and depth of your ramekins. The pie casings need to be cut to slightly more than one times the diameter plus two times the depth.
- A small bowl was found to serve as a cutting template for the pie cases while a drinking glass (same diameter as ramekins) was subsequently used for the lids.
- Roll the pastry out large enough to cut two larger circles and two smaller ones.
- Grease the full insides of the ramekins with butter and carefully fit the casings inside, ensuring they overhang slightly and evenly all the way around.
- Spoon the cooled beef in to the ramekins. Do not completely fill. Any excess beef can be classed as cook/chef's perks.
- Cut the lids with the glass and carefully fit in place. Glaze the pastry lids with beaten egg.
- Crimp the edges of the pie casings over the edges of the lids and glaze the crimps.
- Use the point of a sharp knife to cut a steam vent in the top of each pie. Sit the ramekins on a baking tray and put them in to the oven for about half an hour until the pastry is risen and golden.
- Take the pies from the oven and use a blunt edged knife to carefully free the pastry all around the edges of each ramekin. It shouldn't be badly stuck, thanks to the butter.
- Wearing oven gloves, carefully tip the pies out of the ramekins and sit on a wire rack to rest for about ten minutes.
Bringing the Pie, Mash, Liquor and Jellied Conger Eel TogetherClick thumbnail to view full-size
- When the pies have been in the oven for about ten minutes, peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Add them to a pot with plenty of cold water and some salt. Bring to a simmer for around fifteen to twenty minutes until just softened.
- Drain the potatoes through a colander at your sink, tip them back in to the empty pot and let them steam off for five minutes. If you don't do this to get rid of the excess moisture in the form of steam, you will have soggy mash.
- Measure out the half pint of eel poaching liqueur and gently heat in a saucepan until just simmering and no more. Pour in to a jug.
- Melt the ounce/¼ stick of butter in the same saucepan and add the teaspoon of flour. Stir to form a roux and cook for two or three minutes before pouring in the warm stock, stirring well.
- Add the parsley and bring to a simmer for a few minutes, stirring frequently, to thicken.
- While the liquor is simmering, add a little butter to the potatoes, season with white pepper and mash.
- Spoon the mash on to a serving plate and lay the ramekin of jellied conger eel alongside, having seasoned it with a little extra white pepper and malt vinegar.
- Sit the pies on top of the mash, pour or spoon on the liquor and enjoy this slight variation of a genuine English classic dish.
Preparing Freshwater Jellied Eels
There is no reason why this method of preparing jellied conger eels could not be applied to freshwater silver eels. The only amendment you would need to make would be to poach the eels for a slightly shorter period of time, around twelve to fifteen minutes.
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© 2014 Gordon Hamilton