If you have never eaten smelt before you are in for a real treat. I have fond memories of my father venturing out with his friends for a midnight smelt dipping and returning home with bucket loads of fish. My mother would be relegated the yukky task of cleaning the little buggers which meant removing the heads and entrails to get them ready for a big fish fry. My husband has enjoyed these fish runs as well, but knows better than to leave me the task of cleaning them. Come to think of it, that might be why he dips for smelt less frequently these days.
Preparing them is easy and are best as soon as they are collected. There are lots of recipes for fried smelt. Dipped in an egg/flour batter and then deep fried, but frankly, it doesn't need to be that complicated. Simply dredging them in some seasoned flour and frying them in a half inch of oil in a skillet like my mother used to do makes for a very tasty meal. Die hard fishermen fry them up whole with the heads and entrails in tact. I prefer them cleaned.
As I said, I like to prepare them the way my mother did simply floured and fried in a skillet. Pile them onto a large platter and sprinkle them with chopped mint and a splash of wine vinegar. My father would eat them without removing the backbone or tail, both of which are quite edible, but I prefer to pull out the backbone. And, oh are they delicious! "Just like candy", my father used to say.
Unfortunately, the smelt runs these days aren't as abundant as they used to be, so they are more difficult to find in the local grocery stores. By chance, I was able to pick up a fresh batch yesterday, already cleaned and ready to fry.
I am accustomed to serving them as an entree which means you need probably 10-15 fish per person, or a bucket full if you are feeding a lot of people. They are also great as an appetizer or to munch on with a cold beer. This is finger food. They go well with anything pickled or dressed with a vinaigrette. I've paired them here with a salad of fennel, radishes and celery dressed with a simple oil and vinegar vinaigrette. Smelt are super easy to prepare, mild in flavor and quite tender with a nice crispy crust. A truly special treat this time of year.
1 1/2 pounds of cleaned smelt (heads and entrails removed)
1 cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive or vegetable oil
Chopped fresh mint leaves to sprinkle on top
Vinegar - either cider, wine or malt vinegar to splash on the fish
Fennel Radish & Celery Salad
1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced (a mandoline works best)
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 large stalk celery, thinly sliced
2 T. thinly sliced red onion or sweet onion
2 T. chopped parsley
2 T. Olive oil
1 T. Vinegar - either cider, white wine or rice vinegar
Salt & pepper
Combine all vegetables. Add vinaigrette and toss together.