Sometimes something just hits me funny. It can be a joke, a word, a picture, just about anything. I can giggle about these things--often things nobody else finds funny--for hours. Rachel thinks most of the same things are funny, too, which is probably why we are such great friends.
Smelts are one of the things we both find funny. The word alone--"smelt"--just makes me smile. On top of that, they are iridescent and rather pretty. I know almost nothing about smelts except that my friend Brenda, who comes from Wisconsin, used to tell me about huge smelt fish fries. For some mysterious reason that always stuck in my head.
When we stumbled upon this package of them:
We knew we had to get it. The store had two packages, we happily bought one of them, and giggled about them for hours. When we went to the store the next day, the other package had been sold! So it's a good thing we picked them up. After some pondering, I'm pretty sure I ate smelt in Japan. They are fried whole in Asian, with their head and tail still attached, and they are often full of eggs (according to Wikipedia). I totally ate a fish like that. In fact I was told to "eat the fish and not look inside" which is a slightly disturbing statement.
I figured that you were just supposed to eat them whole, like sardines or anchovies (another thing that both Wikipedia and The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink agree is true), but that absolutely disgusted Rachel. Something about the idea of eating bones really grossed her out. She took it upon herself to debone them. In the picture you can see a pile of boneless smelts, bone-in smelts, and a pile of smelt bones (let that be a warning to future smelts in case they want to attack!):
She opened them up and just pulled the spine and related bones out:
It was pretty impressive. They made nice tiny little fillets. The cats were mesmerized.
There are two smelt recipes in TJOC and it seemed like a good idea to knock out both while we had the smelt on hand. The first recipe was for Breaded smelts (p. 408).
I sprinkled twelve smelts with lemon juice and let them sit for fifteen minutes. I then dipped them in heavy cream:
We whipped up a batch of Seasoned flour or crumbs for breading II (p. 962). We mixed fine bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a little thyme and tarragon.
I dredged the fish in the seasoned cornmeal:
I melted a half stick butter in the skillet and popped the smelts in:
They immediately started disintegrating. As I flipped them, the soggy crust started melting off. Maybe the skilled was too large, maybe we should have used less butter, I have no idea what the problem was. By the time I pulled them out they were pretty sad looking:
But they were delicious! Honestly, Rachel and I had very low expectations for the smelts. Very, very low expectations. I thought they would at least be really fishy, like other little fishes such as the aforementioned anchovies or sardines, but they were very mild. The cream and lemon juice gave the fish a nice flavor. I think it would help if we had just used seasoned flour instead of cornmeal--the cornmeal was too substantial for the fish. We ate them all (we honestly expected not to like them and to end up throwing them out).
The second smelt recipe was Whitebait or smelts (p. 411). There is just something off-putting to me about eating fish that are called "bait".
We heated oil until it was about 375 degrees Fahrenheit (although the oil might have been a little too hot, it's hard to control the oil heat). We dredged the smelts in the seasoned cornmeal and then popped them in the oil:
TJOC says 2 or 3 minutes until they are cooked. Well, at two minutes they looked like this:
Overdone. We ate them but they tasted like nothing. Honestly, there could have been anything in there. Crickets, heart, who knows, it would all taste the same when fried to a crisp like that. I can't give much of an opinion because they just tasted like "fried". I think they would have been good if cooked correctly.
Random minutiae related to this post:
- Wikipedia insinuates that you can catch smelts by standing in a stream and swinging a net between your legs
- Smelts swim upstream like salmon and live part of their life in freshwater and part of their life in salt water (Wikipedia)
- Smelt eggs are bright orange and often used as sushi garnish (Wikipedia)
- Smelts are a traditional fish in the Northern Italian "Feast of Seven Fishes" (Wikipedia)