Some fish are available all year round but it pays to watch out for those specimens that have a natural season — that’s when they’ll be at their best. The conger eel’s season is from November to June so it will still be at its prime for the next two months.
The fish counter at El Corte Inglés usually has it and a couple of stalls at the Mercat d’Olivar also sell it. It costs around €15 a kilo for the best cuts and in Spanish it’s called congrio.
It grows to a maximum length of just under two metres and its colour depends on its habitat. Those caught in Majorcan waters are usually grey or black. Some people, even fishmongers, think they are two different species but they are the same: the Conger conger, as it is called in Latin. The grey one lives on sandy seabeds and the black one swims in rocky areas.
The conger is a ferocious fish with a voracious appetite. It has extremely strong jaws and teeth that are pointed and razor sharp. When provoked it can inflict severe bites on fishermen and scuba divers.
However, it gets a high culinary rating. Spaniards are most fond of it and there’s a good range of recipes all over the country. Although it is classified as a blue fish, its flesh is white, firm, oily and tasty.
Congers were highly appreciated in ancient times. The Roman food writer Apicius, who was compiling recipes of the aristocracy more than 2,000 years ago, gives six sauces for boiled or fried conger.
The sauces contain mixtures of of herbs, spices, fruit and wine, which are pounded together and then cooked. His recipes also use pinenuts, honey and vinegar, and the fruits include damsons and grapes. Every recipe also uses liquamen, the fermented fish sauce that is also known as garum. As these ingredients suggest, the conger can stand up to a great deal of added flavour.
Some cooks consider it rather smelly and with a flattish taste and recommend that it be marinated in olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper before being cooked. But this treatment isn’t strictly necessary.
The best slices of conger are those near the head. They are crescent-shaped and in Spanish they are known as ‘abierto’, or open. These slices are from the belly area and, being furtherest from the tail, they have no bones.
The round slices, that come after the belly, are called ‘cerrado’, or closed. The smaller the slice, the more bones it will have. The open slices, of course, are dearer than the closed ones. Most people prefer to pay a bit more and have bone-free fish.
Most non-Spanish cookbooks say conger should be skinned before cooking — but don’t do it. Richard Stein, in his otherwise excellent English Seafood Cookery, even gives explicit instructions on how to skin a conger. But the slices of conger sold here have the skin intact — and for a very good reason.
All members of the eel family have a layer of fat under the skin that adds taste to the fish and helps to keep it moist. When fried or grilled properly, the fat shrivels and the skin becomes crisp.
Some Spanish cooks like to take a whole piece of the belly section with skin intact and roast it in the oven as if it were a joint of suckling pig. As the conger roasts, the fat melts under the skin and bastes the flesh, leaving it moist and full of flavour. The skin becomes crisp and adds a nice contrast of textures.
Open slices of conger are excellent when coated with flour and fried over a high heat until the skin becomes crunchy. It is ideal for chargrilling and you will also get good results with an oven grill.
Alternate pieces of conger and bay leaves can be grilled on metal or wooden skewers. If you have access to long strong sprigs of rosemary, they make superb skewers. In both cases, the conger is enhanced by the intense flavour of the herbs.
Galicians are very fond of conger and you will find a good selection of recipes in Galician cookbooks. They do it with rice, having first coated the open slices with a paste of pounded garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. The rice is flavoured with paprika and saffron.
They also cook conger with thickly sliced potatoes and fresh green peas that are first briefly sautéed in an earthenware dish with finely chopped onion and garlic. The potatoes are covered with saffron-flavoured water and simmered until half-cooked.
Slices of conger, without any added flavouring, are placed on top, covered, and cooked until just done. A final sprinkling of finely chopped parsley complements the seasoning.
The Cataláns have a very tasty recipe based mainly on parsley. Finely chopped onion, garlic and lots of parsley are sautéed in olive oil in an earthenware dish. When the onion is golden, skinned, seeded and chopped tomatoes are added along with some vegetable stock. The mixture is simmered for 15 minutes and slices of conger are added.
While the fish is cooking, a mayonnaise is made with a pounded clove of garlic, a fresh egg yolk and virgen extra olive oil. This is carefully stirred into the conger dish during the last five minutes of cooking. After the mayonnaise is added the sauce must not come back to the boil. If it does, it will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish.
Conger is nearing the end of its season but mackerel has just started: its prime time is from April to September so we have five months to make the most of its many attractions — including the fact that it is very economical and prices will go down even further as the season reaches its peak.
Mackerel, called ‘caballa’ in Spanish, is a fine meaty fish that is highly nutritious and full of flavour. It is so versatile that all cooking methods suit it: poached, steamed, soused, grilled, fried, baked, pickled, salted or smoked. When it it very fresh it can be eaten raw, as in Japanese and Scandinavian recipes.
The freshness of mackerel is all-important because it deteriorates more quickly than any other fish. And when that happens there’s nothing you can do with it except bin it.
Mackerel goes off so quickly that there was a time when it was the only edible that could be sold on the streets of London on Sundays. Shakespeare has Falstaff use the simile “as cheap as stinking mackerel” because such a mackerel is worthless. It is always best to get mackerel at market stalls and supermarkets with a quick turnover — and you should use it on the day you buy it.
Although mackerel can be very good on its own when simply fried grilled or baked, it benefits from the addition of sharp flavours that bring out the richness of its meaty flesh. A gooseberry sauce was so popular for centuries that the French for gooseberry is ‘groseille à maquereau’, or mackerel currant.
It’s the oil in the fish that makes it such a good match for a tart flavours. This is the oil that makes mackerel go rancid so quickly, making the flesh soft and unpalatable. But when fresh, the flesh is firm and the flavour is excellent, with the added advantage of having no little bones. That’s why mackerel provides beautiful fillets, a delight for cooks and diners alike.
These fillets are simple to cook and they make easy and lovely lunch and dinner dishes. Dipped in beaten egg, firmly coated with breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter or olive oil (or a mixture) they are at their simplest and best.
Some Spanish housewives like to cook mackerel big mackerel in the papillote way - wrapping them up in tinfoil with thinly sliced mushrooms, roughly chopped parsley and a little fresh thyme. They are then drizzled with virgen extra olive oil and baked in a hot oven for 10-12 minutes depending on size.
Mackerel fillets can also be cooked on a bed of spinach and served with boiled new potatoes. Sometimes the spinach is spiked with pinenuts and raisins, a favourite Catalán way of dealing with this leafy vegetable.
Although fillets make superb eating, we mustn’t forget the culinary bliss in a plump whole mackerel baked and served with a sauce that has a nice touch of acidity. Majorcan and Spanish cooks, indeed cooks everywhere, slash fish three times diagonally on each side before grilling, frying or baking. The idea is that the heat penetrates more quickly at the thickest parts. Even Richard Stein does this in a recipe for grilled sea bass — “slash the fish two or three times on either side”.
Slicing across the fish like this is absolutely unnecessary and is bad technique because the flesh exposed to the full blast of the oven immediately starts to dry out — and that’s the last thing you want to happen. Cooking is all about applying the heat correctly — if you’re slashing the fish three times on either side you are starting off in a ruinous way. The fish will never be as succulent as it could have been.
You must always avoid cutting into mackerel or any other fish when frying, grilling or baking so that the skin can act as a wrap and keep the flesh moist. When grilled or fried on a high heat the mackerel will be more tasty because the charred and crisp skin will give impart a light smoky flavour.
You can make mackerel into a delectable summer dish by using this simple method. If the mackerel are small, ask the fishmonger to cut off the heads and tails and gut them. If buying biggish ones, ask for them to be cut into thick steaks.
In a half litre of water or fish stock, simmer for 15 minutes some roughly sliced carrots and onions, two plump cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, a clove and a bouquet garni of leaf celery, parsley and fresh thyme. After 15 minutes add half a litre of decent white wine, bring back to the boil and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Put the mackerel in a single layer in a suitable slightly deep dish, sprinkle with sea salt crystals and black peppercorns and thin slices of lemon. Pour the strained boiling stock over the dish and leave for 12 hours. Serve the strained mackerel at room temperature with boiled new potatoes or a salad. It’s an ideal summer dish.
When you want to add sharp flavours to mackerel, these two mustard-based sauces will do the job nicely. One is like a thin blender-made mayonnaise for which you will need 10 peeled cloves of garlic simmered in salted water until they are tender.
Put the cooked garlic into a blender with a heaped tablespoon of Dijon or Meaux mustard, the juice of half a lemon and two raw egg yolks. Blend slowly, drizzling in virgen extra olive oil until you have a thin mayonnaise.
Another sauce calls for fresh fennel leaf as it main flavouring. You will need: 4 tbsps Dijon mustard, 1 tsp powdered mustard, 50 grs sugar, 2 tbsps white vinegar (cider is best), 6 tbsps virgen extra olive oil and 3 heaped tbsps chopped fresh fennel leaves.
Mix the mustards, sugar and vinegar to a paste in a mortar. Slowly add the oil, stirring with the pestle until it forms an emulsion rather like mayonnaise. Stir in the fennel leaf snipped into tiny pieces with scissors. If transferred to a tightly covered jar, the sauce will keep well in the fridge for several days. Before using it again shake the jar vigorously.
When mackerel is very fresh you can do a good version of carpaccio. Slice big fillets thinly, arrange on a serving dish, drizzle with virgen extra olive oil (or apply it with a spray) and sprinkle with fresh herbs of your choice. Let it marinate for a few hours before serving it as a light starter with brown bread and butter.