One throw of a mullet net—a circular cast net similar to shrimp cast nets but with heavier weights and a larger weave—in a tidal pool on an incoming tide will often yield an entire school of mullet. They are usually cut up for bait, and the heads are used to bait crab traps. But I love freshly caught mullet, panfried for breakfast or cured by smoke, the way I prepare eel. Berkeley County eels are world-renowned, though the industry has suffered many setbacks in recent years. They are farmed in ponds, but I most frequently come upon eels that have wandered into my crab pot.

Dealing with a live eel is no easy task. They are strong, and they bite. Wear a glove and grab the eel from behind the head, then put it down in a tub of heavily salted water both to kill the eel and to remove the layer of slime that covers its body. Hang the dead eel by its head, either from a hook or by driving a nail through its head into a board. Make an incision into the skin all the way around the head; then, with pliers, pull the skin off the entire body in one fell swoop. Gut the eel and remove the head. Leave the tail fin intact. It is then ready to be cured. Proceed as for the mullet:

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Ingredients

  • ¼ cup salt
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon sorghum molasses, cane blackstrap molasses, or light or dark brown sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 small onion, chopped (about ¼ cup)
  • 6 ½-pound freshly caught mullets, scaled and gutted, or 1 3-pound eel, dressed

Method

In a nonreactive container such as a glass baking dish or a stainless-steel bowl, mix the salt into the water and stir until it dissolves. In a small container such as a coffee cup, add a little of the water to the mustard and turmeric and mix well to form a paste. Add the paste to the remaining water along with the molasses, lemon juice, and onion. Stir to combine all the ingredients. Submerge the fish in the marinade and place a heavy plate right side up on top of the water to keep the fish under water. Refrigerate overnight.

Remove the fish from the brine and hang them by the tails in a well-ventilated, bug-free place while a skin, called the pellicle, forms on the outside of the fish (1 to 2 hours). Soak hickory chips in water and prepare the smoker. The grates should be clean and brushed with oil; the temperature should stay at about 140°.

Smoke the fish over smoldering chips (see note) until it flakes with a fork. It will take 2 to 4 hours. Serve at once or allow to cool, wrap in plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator.

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