Eel and eggs

This post was originally published on Borough Market’s website — as part of an introductory series to ‘The Borough Market Cookbook’, wot i hav ritten (out in October). 

One of many things that I like about market shopping, is that it provides an opportunity to try new (or new to me) ingredients. Whether it’s a type of cheese or version of charcuterie I’ve not seen before, a vegetable that’s relatively unusual on retail shelves, an odd looking mollusc, unfamiliar vinegar, or a particular breed or cut of animal, every time I walk around the various sections of Borough Market I discover something different.

It follows, then, that the chance to experiment beyond routine is reflected in The Borough Market Cookbook, alongside the seasonal themes and events touched on in the first two posts of this introductory series.

We all love pottering around fresh produce markets, pointing (and clicking) at bountiful piles of fruit and vegetables, odd looking fish and spectacular carcasses. But that’s really only half the joy. The real payoff comes when we pluck up the courage to buy and to subsequently eat, too.

That’s sometimes easier said than done, though, isn’t it? Regardless of good intentions, I suspect every one of us has frozen at the last minute, and instead of picking up that super seasonal Italian lettuce or shimmering red-scaled fish, have plumped instead for a more familiar green vegetable and a couple of fillets of salmon or cod.

Perhaps the main stumbling block is the “but how do I cook it?” question.

If that relates to the likes of quince, red mullet, mallard, summer truffles, masa harina, and fruit powders, then the cookbook provides specific answers. Unfortunately, we’d need a book with an infinitely expanding page count to given guidance on every current, let alone future ingredient underneath Borough Market’s railway arches.

However there is in the book (I think) an overriding sense of encouragement to go out there and explore; to be enchanted and enthuses and engaged by market produce, and to just give things a go. The traders can always provide cooking and eating tips, so we’re rarely completely on our own without a clue what to do.

Moreover, on the pages there should be (again, I think) a sense that cooking great meals from scratch is actually very simple. Most market produce really doesn’t require much effort to take it from paper bag to warmed plate. Further it’s rare that the interesting ones (in particular) need to be transformed far beyond their natural state to be enjoyed. Basically, whether instantly recognisable, or new to you, when good ingredients are at their peak, it’s easy to make great tasting food.

Among the book’s recipes, the ‘cook interesting ingredients simply’ approach is particularly evident in those dishes that suit 2-4 people for a brunch, lunch or simple supper. Picture tonka bean spiced eggy bread with roast grapes, fennel and campagnole sausage linguine, steamed sea trout with pan-fried baby gem, veal chops with anchovy-dressed punterelle. You’ll see that none of them take more than a few minutes to cook, but all are centred around a couple of interesting ingredients that you’re unlikely to find in the supermarket aisles, and may have walked past (without picking up) when at the Market.

Not in the book but of a similar vibe is this recipe for smoked eel and scrambled eggs. It’s not much more than the basic bacon and eggs that you’ve been cooking all your life, but using smoked eel instead of cured pork does change proceedings just a little. This is an ingredient that’s very British (indeed very London), but yet is on very few people’s typical shopping list. Which is a shame. Because it’s utterly delicious, and in this context is the exact meeting point between great smoked bacon, haddock, kippers and smoked salmon. Which in my book means it’s the perfect partner to oozing scrambled eggs. ‘Red frills’ — a type of mustard leaf — add horseradish, pepper and mustard notes, along with a touch of grassy citrus. And you must add really good tomatoes (at room temperature), to cut through the richness of the eel and egg. If in the past you’ve glanced at the smoked eel on the counters of Shellseekers or Furness Fish and Game, but carried on walking, then be sure to remember this next time, and to give the eel a go.

Eel and eggs

This is not so different to scrambled eggs and bacon — a dish so tried and tested it probably doesn’t merit a recipe.

However, the eggs should be relatively sloppy, so there’s a nod to a method for that; and as eel may be new to many, instructions for warming pre-prepared eel fillets are also included.

Ultimately, though, this is really a prompt to put four great things on the same plate. It will be most successful if the eggs are free range and brightly yoked, red frills (or other peppery leaf) feisty, and the tomatoes at their peak.

Serves 2

  • 100g smoked eel
  • 2 excellent tomatoes, at room temperature
  • 2 handfuls of red mustard frills
  • 6 large eggs
  • Knob of butter
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 150C fan, 170C non fan, gas mark 3-4.

Prepare all your elements first, as this will come together quickly once the eggs begin to cook.

Carefully transfer the eel fillets to a small baking sheet or tray.

Slice the tomatoes, set them on a plate and season generously with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Check you have two handfuls of clean and fresh red mustard frills nearby.

Place a medium-large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over a low heat. Add a knob of butter and wait as it slowly melts — if it foams and browns, the pan is too hot.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl. Season with heavy pinches of salt and pepper and whisk furiously. Tip into the saucepan and cook very, very slowly, stirring continuously — they should take longer than 4 minutes, and easily up to 8. Try to avoid the eggs catching and cooking quickly, removing the pan from the heat from time to time if firming too quickly.

Meanwhile, put the eel in the oven for 5 minutes, during which time it will warm and expand a little. Try to avoid colouring or breaking apart.

Don’t neglect the eggs. As soon as they’re done, divide between two plates. Add the warm eel fillets, tomatoes and a handful of red mustard frills.