By Linda Bassett
More Content Now
Needing to pick up a few items for dinner, I headed for the big supermarket, skipping the fresh fish market. I only buy fresh fish where the counter people let me smell it before I buy. Fresh fish should smell like the ocean, bright and briny, not “fishy” at all. At home, I have little time to deal with heads, tails, bones or skin.
So as I looked over the choices, noting the high prices, I saw something reasonably priced that I hadn’t seen in awhile — smelts. Smelts are little tiny fish, so 1-1/2 to 2 pounds will feed four easily. This was going to be great! A novelty fish, homemade tartar sauce, on a big old-fashioned double-chop salad. I planned to fry the fish at the last minute to keep them hot and crispy.
Crisp is a hot food trend right now. Chefs double fry potato sticks. They add panko (Japanese bread crumbs) to strips of zucchini before sinking them in a bath of hot oil. And they compete with Colonel Sanders for crunchier coating. (In case you haven’t noticed, carbs have replaced fat as the dietary villain.)
The trick to keeping the fat quota down is a shorter oil bath, quick pan-frying rather than deep-frying, then a stop on a pile of paper towels to absorb excess oil. And smaller, thinner cuts of the food to be fried, e.g. those tiny smelts.
Smelts are in season in early springtime when their home waters rush. At night, by the light of flashlights, fishermen drop nets into the water, each carefully guarding a secret spot.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked the tiny fish. So memory was foggy. As I started to give the batch a quick rinse, I was shocked to find bones still inside! Had I been cheated? Had I missed something? What to do? First, I pulled out all my New England cookbooks and checked the indexes. Some included them, others skipped them entirely. And differences of opinion ranged from removing bones (none with directions) to eating them.
I tried all my American cookbooks, antiques and modern ones alike, and found the same. Last resort, the Internet. Same results.
It took a family member raised on the coast of Maine to remind me: Cut off the tails, if you want, but leave the bones in. Butterfly, or flatten, the fish. Dip into egg wash, and coat with cornmeal. Not the finely powdered corn flour, but nice, grainy cornmeal. That’s where you get the crunch.
Set out lengths of brown paper. Heat a neutral oil like canola or vegetable in a deep skillet, and add the smallest fish as a tester. Then you’re ready to cook! Cook in batches and never overcrowd the pan or the fish will turn out soggy. Shovel each finished batch onto a sheet pan and keep them hot in a 250F oven until they are all cooked.
Then serve them on a big platter, covered with more brown paper. Everyone messily digs into a big plate of the fish, finds the end of each backbone and it pulls out easily. Any pin bones left in the fish are softened and entirely edible.
Homemade tartar sauce is a must. Lemon wedges are nice extra touch.
BASIC FRIED SMELTS
To add a bit more crunch, I salt the fish with large grain sea salt (sometimes labeled “finishing salt”) while it drains on the brown paper. I also use tongs rather than a spatula as they don’t lift extra oil from the pan. (Note: Forks and knives optional.)
2 pounds smelts, cleaned, without heads, tails optional
3 eggs plus 2 tablespoons cold water
a few drops hot sauce, entirely optional
1-1/2 cups grainy cornmeal
salt and pepper, to taste
neutral oil for frying
Special equipment: a large, heavy, deep skillet so that they oil does not splash brown paper or paper towels.
1.Heat the oven to 250F. Make a cut down through the entire open side so that the inside is exposed and the smelts lie flat. I cut off the tails. Rinse smelts well under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
2. Beat the eggs with the water in a bowl so that white and yellow are fully incorporated. If using hot sauce, add this to the mixture. Place the cornmeal in a separate bowl.
3. Dip the smelts first in the egg wash, shaking off any excess, then into the cornmeal, making sure that both sides are coated. Pat coating on, if needed.
4. Heat the oil. Add the smallest smelt to the pan. It should sizzle and turn golden brown on one side. Pick it up with tongs and turn to the other side. Once this works, add a batch to the pan, being careful to keep spaces between them to prevent sogginess. Turn, and cook on the other side. Take them out with tongs, transferring to brown paper or paper toweling to drain excess oil. Salt them right away. Transfer fish to a sheet pan and to a warm oven to keep hot. Serve as soon as the last batch is finished, nice and hot!
HOMEMADE TARTAR SAUCE
Makes about 1-1/4 cups
1 cup mayonnaise, homemade or best quality purchased
2 heaping tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 teaspoons medium capers, drained and chopped
a few drops lemon juice
hot sauce, entirely optional, to taste
Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Makes as many servings as you want
The idea here is to have as many colors as possible, so this list is red, orange, yellow, green and purple.
2 to 3 types of lettuce, some crunchy, some deep green
cucumbers, peeled and seeded
tiny cubes of cheddar
blanched green beans
red bell peppers
yellow bell peppers
Cut all the elements into a small dice, about 1/2-inch each, including lettuces. Toss gently. Pour on favorite vinaigrette. Toss again, very gently.
— Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@gmail.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.
Kitchen Call: Springtime is smelt season
By Linda Bassett