Pan-frying a filet of fish is easy, but pan-frying little smelts is even easier. Talk about the ultimate fish for a fish and chips meal! Just dip each smelt into a dusting of your choice and sautée in butter or ghee for about five minutes. Done.
And the nearly-bite-sized smelt are much less expensive than the bigger filets, too. Not to mention the fact that they’re far more sustainable since they like to eat lower-on-the-chain organisms like zooplankton and tiny shrimp. (The smelt are in turn eaten by larger fish like salmon and trout.) If anything, most seafood monitoring groups report smelt as being underfished. That’s a rarity! So smelt wins on all fronts: it tastes great, it’s easy to prepare, and it’s environmentally friendly. You can’t ask for more from a fish.
I enjoyed these smelt with boiled potatoes tossed with dill, sea salt, and extra-virgin olive oil, but you could just as easily serve smelt with sautéed potato slices (the “chips” part of the fish and chips), coleslaw dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, or some sautéed veggies.
Figure on about 6 to 8 smelt per person and serve the fried smelt with any side you like (see above paragraph for suggestions).
About 1/2 cup whole-grain flour* OR a blend of flour and finely grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of sea salt
Dash of dried herbs such as dill, basil, or oregano (optional)
Butter for frying
Clean the smelt and rinse well with cold water. I was lucky — Superior Fish in Royal Oak sells pre-cleaned smelt with the heads and innards removed. Some folks say they don’t mind the tiny bones in smelt; some say they prefer them boneless. It’s up to you. But if you wind up with uncleaned smelt, at least cut off the heads, and if you like, slit down the belly and remove the bones. Leave the tails, though — they’ll act like handles later on. Pat the smelt mostly dry.
Place the flour and/or Parmesan in a large soup bowl. Add a pinch of sea salt and the optional herbs. Dredge each smelt thoroughly in the seasoned flour and set aside on a fresh plate.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the smelt (quite a few will fit into the skillet at once) and sautée them for about 5 minutes total, flipping once or twice. As they cook completely through, one smelt will probably break with the handling, letting you see the opaque inside. If none break, cut the thickest one in half to see if it’s done.
Serve immediately — these little guys are best when they’re piping hot from the pan!
* For gluten-free fried smelt, use brown rice, sorghum, corn, quinoa or millet flour; for a wheat-based dish, use whole-whole, spelt, or kamut flour.
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