The legends of eels have colored folklore throughout the ages. Some Philippine tribes say that eels are the souls of the dead, while in parts of Europe it's believed that rubbing the skin with eel oil will cause a person to see fairies. Whatever their origin or exterior application, eels are widely popular in Europe and Japan, where many consider their rich, sweet, firm meat a delicacy. This rather long, snakelike fish—of which there are both freshwater and saltwater varieties—has a smooth, scaleless skin. It spawns at sea and dies shortly thereafter. The European and American eel breed deep in Atlantic waters near Bermuda. The minuscule, transparent eel larvae drift on ocean currents for enormous distances—their journey to Europe taking about 3 years—until they reach coastal areas. There they transform into tiny, wormlike elvers (baby eel) and begin wriggling up inland waterways and crossing boggy grounds to reach small ponds and streams. After about 10 years of living in this freshwater habitat, the eel begins its migration back to Atlantic waters where it spawns and dies. The conger eel, a scaleless, saltwater "monster" fish that can reach up to 10 feet long and weigh over 170 pounds, is a relative of the common eel. Fresh eels, depending on the region, are available year-round, the fall being the peak season. Those under 2 pounds will be more tender. Before cooking, the thick, tough skin and outer layer of fat must be removed—a task usually handled by the fish dealer. Fresh eel should be refrigerated and used within a day or two. It's excellent baked, stewed or grilled. Because conger eel meat is very tough, it is most often used in soups and stews. Eel is also available jellied in cans or smoked. Though considered a fatty fish, the eel is high in vitamins A and D, as well as being a good source of protein. See also fish.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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