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Having been given an eel and cleaned and gutted it, here’s how I cooked and ate it.

I was a bit worried because I’d heard varying reports on eating eel – from it being bland and rubbery to it being so strong you needed to cook it in certain ways to tone it down. I’m pleased to find it is both easy to cook and delicious!

One of the ethics for me in eating meat is a commitment to use as much as possible of the animal that has died to feed me. This is about valuing that animal’s life (and death) but it’s also about sustainable practice. If I can get three times more nutrients from this eel by eating all of it rather than just the ‘meat’, then I can take only one eel instead of three. Traditional cultures have always used the whole animal in some way, and many of the parts we throw out now are in fact the most nutritious.

I’d read and heard various techniques for skinning eels and the necessity of removing the slime from the outside of the skin. A couple of friends said they eat the skin, and one said she doesn’t deslime at all because she feels it’s part of the nutrition, so that’s what I went with. Fish skin is always so tasty, and it seemed like there was a good amount of oil in and just under the eel skin that I didn’t want to lose. I found the eel a bit slimey when handling it – don’t bother trying to wash your hands in water while cutting it up, use a towel to wipe your hands instead – but it wasn’t obvious in the cooking. I don’t know why people try and remove it, but then one of the attractions of eel for me is the large amount of fish oil – maybe some people don’t want that.

Cutting up the eel was a bit tricky – the skin still being tough, and the spine too. I’m sure technique is alot to do with it. I ended up cutting most of it into ‘steaks’ i.e. cutting across the body in cross section. I hadn’t bled the eel so there was a good chunk of blood along the spine still which I left in to cook:

I’d looked up some recipes for jellied eel and thought I’d try that because it seemed a good way of accessing the best nutrients in the eel. The long slow cooking in water would make it very digestible and ‘hold’ in all the goodies. First I melted some butter in the bottom of a casserole dish. Then I put in the steaks and sprinkled them with salt and a large handful of chopped fennel leaf. I just covered all this with water and added 3 tablespoons of chickweed vinegar (any good quality vinegar will do).

The oven was preheated to 170C. With the lid on I let it cook for about an hour.

The long slow cooking and the vinegar extract all the ‘jelly’ from the eel and once cooled it’s meant to be very jelly like. Mine wasn’t but I think it was because I used so much water. However it was very yummy, both the meat and the broth. The skin did indeed taste great, possibly an acquired texture for some but very edible. The meat was a bit chewy (cooking temperature could be a bit lower) although not rubbery, and the flesh fell apart easily making it very soupy. The spine as easy to pull out but there were some random wee bones which made for careful eating. I found it hard to see what was happening with the bones when cutting it up before cooking, so I need to learn how to fillet eel. It reheated well and I’ve frozen some to see how that goes.

I also froze some steaks raw, and all of the fat (need to figure out what to do with that and if it needs rendering). The liver I sautéed with onion. It was incredibly tender and very mild tasting – much easier to eat than the liver from land animals.

I’m also having a go at drying some strips of eel, but it’s an experiment as I’ve never dried meat before. I’d tried taking out the bones, not very well I’m afraid. But the spine and head and gill section of the body all went into a big pot to make stock. I added a large roughly chopped onion (skin on) and a couple of chopped carrots, covered it well with water and set it on a slow element for a couple of hours. It simmered, didn’t reduce down much but produced a tasty broth that I’ve been eating with grains and beans for the last few days. I also used some to cook rice. The rest of the broth has gone into the freezer in ice cube trays for later use.

It was such a large fish and I had more than enough to go on with so I gave the bottom third of the eel to a friend. The left overs from the cooking (the cooked spine bits, gills and head) went into a hole in the ground next to a recently planted fruit tree. The only bit of the eel that got ‘thrown out’ was the intestine and stomach which I had thrown in the lake because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to do or not. I know trout feed at that spot, probably eels too…

When I was out the other I came across some council trees. They’re maybe 4 or 5  years old. They’re between the road and a large empty paddock that gets mown several times a year but where the grass is still thick and abundant.

The area around the base of the trees is bare dirt for maybe a 2 – 3 metres diameter and the rabbits have been going beserk, making extravagantly big holes. I was curious about this – some time ago it was pointed out to me that rabbits thrive where the grass is really short. That’s why you have rabbit problems where there is sheep grazing (because most farmers graze pasture very low).

Bearing this in mind I look around to see where else the rabbits are making homes. And sure enough, the only places there are holes is where there the grass has been disturbed or is very short. Most of the paddock is thick grass up to five inches tall but generally less than that and there were no rabbit holes there at all. But where the grass had been dug into by humans or sprayed, there were holes.

Here’s the irony. The council were obviously spraying around the trees to keep the grass down, and then the rabbits where coming along and digging because it’s the only accessible dirt in the area. The spraying is unnecessary as these older trees won’t be adversely affected by long grass. I guess it’s a cosmetic thing, you can’t have long grass in a town, it looks messy. Messier than dead grass, bare earth, rabbit holes and pesticide residue.

So go rabbits I say. If humans are going to do stupid things, then nature will point it out.

Solutions? Personally I don’t mind long grass and would take that over pesticide use any day. I accept that that is too much for many people, so how about wild herbaceous borders that act as mini wildlife preserves or corridors? The strip of land where these trees were growing could be seeded with local wildflowers, in this case yarrow, vipers bugloss, st john’s wort, wild carrot, dandelion, red clover and curly dock (they just all happen to be medicinal, heh). This would encourage abundant insect life, including food for bees and predator insects that control ‘pest’ insects (which would also benefit nearby gardens).

Grasses could be included (especially some of the more aesthetic ones), which would provide food for small birds. If the trees were fruit or nut trees, then the undergrowth could be a permaculture orchard using plants beneficial for predator and pollinating insects eg feral parnsip which when flowering attracts insects and when seeding is elegant (I have a thing for umbelliferae).

In permaculture there is a technique called a guild. This is where you have a cluster of plants that work together for the benefit of each other. In this example each food bearing tree could form the centre of a guild that included plants that act as mulch and ground cover (preserving soil moisture), insect attractors (pest control and pollination), increase fertility and provide nutrients, and provide beauty. You can read more about guilds here.

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I was out for a walk today and came across a willow that seems to be giving up its medicine to the local possum population.

You can see the teeth marks, and that they’ve stripped the bark to quite a height.

They’ve almost ringbarked the tree.

Those were fresh eatings.

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This is an older one. There were a few of these on different trees. You can see the problem – the willow is getting ill inside and a deeper and deeper fissure is opening up. An interesting result from the meeting of two species considered pests in NZ.

You can also see the dark bark layer between the outer grey and the inner white. That dark layer is what you would be after if you were harvesting the inner bark.

Note also the short horizontal lines in the white inner part and how they are similar to the small marks on the outer bark. These are lenticels, structures in trees and other plants that allow gases to move in and out of the tree. Lenticels are more obvious on trees like birch or stone fruit eg cherry trees.

Willow is a strong enough medicine. It contains salicylates, chemicals that relieve pain when taken internally or externally. Aspirin is based on this. I’d love to know if this is specific medicine for the possums or if it’s food.