Range & Habitat:: Most varieties breed in the saltwaters of the Atlantic near the coast of Bermuda. The eggs then float their way back towards Europe where they hatch (becoming elvers) along the coast and wriggle their way inland by rivers and streams till they reach the ponds, bogs, and swamps which are their homes. Eels live in these ponds and streams for about ten years before swimming back out toward the Atlantic where they spawn and then die.
Identification & Biology: This long, snakelike fish has a smooth and scaleless skin that ranges in color from black to brown to greenish. Eels can be found ranging in size anywhere from inch-long elvers to the conger eel which can be as long as 10 feet, weighing in at 170 pounds. The most appetizing eels will weigh in at under 2 pounds.
Market Description: It’s best to buy your eel live for freshness so eels often appear much the same in your market as they do in the water. Eel meat is tremendously flavorful, rich and firm.
Buying Tips: Either live or killed on the spot as your fishmonger prepares the eel as you like, perhaps skinning and gutting it. Eel is also sold pre-skinned and butterflied or filleted, but the freshness may be compromised if you can’t verify how long the eel has been dead.
Buy them live and kill them yourself (covered under Notes); they’ll be much fresher that way. Don’t buy eel if you haven’t seen it alive, that is, if your fishmonger hasn’t killed it before your very eyes. Buying large eels is unwise as the meat will be tougher; if necessary, purchase a larger quantity of smaller eels to ensure the tenderness of the meat.
Recommended Preparation: Eel can be grilled, sautéed, baked, hot-smoked or added to a stew or soup. Eel is best cooked if it is already skinned, gutted or butterflied, and cut into small chunks. Eel should not be eaten raw and is best served with an acidic sauce (using lemon, vinegar, capers, or tomatoes) to counter the rich meat.
Notes: To kill an eel, grip the neck firmly (you might want to hold on with a towel) and whack it against a tabletop or kitchen counter; you may also want to hit the eel on the head with something blunt and heavy, like a mallet. The eel is going to continue moving throughout the process; have no fear, it’s dead. To skin the eel, make a shallow cut into the skin at the base of the neck. Pull back the skin all the way around the circumference. Using a towel, grip this bit of skin and pull; the skin should slide off the meat in one piece. To gut the eel, make a shallow cut at the base of the head all the way down to the tail and remove the vicera. Fillet, butterfly or section as you like.