The European Conger Eel is a grey black, snake like fish that lives for about 15 years and can grow as long as 6 meters, though on average they are about 1.5 meters. The conger is common to the Eastern Atlantic Ocean but when it reaches maturity, it returns to the Mediterranean to spawn. These fish can be quite aggressive when caught, they will attack and bite (quite savagely) any unwitting fisherman who lands one. The conger eel is not a sought after fish, as there is little or no demand for them.
I was delighted to find that my local and excellent fishmonger, Steve Hatt, is open for business in these dark times. They have made a table of used fish boxes to close off the front door and customers queue outside – which works well since all the fish are displayed in the window. I was very impressed by a notice stuck to the glass, stating that the fishmongers will deliver to any local person who can’t get out. While waiting for mussels, I spotted a large conger eel in the window and wondered what it tastes like? Conger’s cheap, so I bought a 3/4lb (340g) steak to try it.
The conger eel has a thick fatty skin, so most recipes suggest removing it before frying. However, I like the fattiness in Japanese eel sashimi and came across a few Spanish and Portuguese recipes which keep the skin on, so I left my fish intact. I used the two linked recipes as inspiration, but relative to the contents of my fridge, I made up a Catalan influenced conger eel stew, thickened with a picada.
Estofado de Congrio receta (serves 2):
3/4lb conger eel
1/4 hot chorizo ring (chopped)
1 large onion (chopped)
2 medium Desirée potatoes (cubed)
6 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
1 orange pepper or other capsicum (chopped)
4 medium tomatoes (grated)
1 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera dulce
1 dessertspoon fresh coriander (chopped)
2 bay leaves
1 pint fish stock
a splash extra dry vermouth
extra virgin olive oil (for frying)
Before cooking any white fish, do sprinkle on a little salt, an hour or so before cooking – as recommended by Jane Grigson.
First and foremost in Catalan cooking, is the sofregit, commencing with gently fried onions in lots of olive oil, which are cooked until soft and sticky.
I added a quarter of a hot cured chorizo ring (chopped) after the onion had become soft – not strictly speaking in keeping with the rules of making a sofregit, but a small amount of chorizo is often used in fish stew, generally in a single piece, along with the stock.
Grate in 4 tomatoes – cut them in half and shred the wet side. Throw away the skins or use them late in stock.
Typically one would add a red or green capsicum pepper, but since I had an orange one, that’s what I used – chopped.
Sprinkle on a teaspoon of pimentón de la Vera dulce – sweet smoked paprika.
Stir in a dessertspoon of fresh chopped coriander.
Add 2 medium peeled and cubed red potatoes, such as Desirée.
Rinse the eel and make a well for it in the middle of the pot.
Pour on one pint of fish stock, add two bay leaves and stir gently.
Bring the heat up to almost boiling, cover with a lid
and allow to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the fish is tender.
When the eel is nearly ready, mix up the ingredients for the picada.
1 dessertspoon fresh coriander (chopped)
1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
10 blanched peeled almonds (toasted)
a small piece of stale bread (torn)
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
3 dessertspoons of the conga broth
Toast 10 blanched peeled almonds in a dry frying pan.
Grind the almonds with a mortar and pestle, along with a chopped clove of garlic, a dessertspoon fresh coriander (cilantro) and a small piece of torn up stale bread. Pour on 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar and when the fish is done, 3 dessertspoons fish stew broth, to make a thick paste.
Stir the picada (paste) into the conger stew to thicken and flavour it.
The conger eel turned out to be absolutely delicious. It was perfectly suited to cooking in a stew and the skin became quite soft with a thin layer of unctuous fat underneath. For anyone not having access to conger, hake would make a good substitute.