Pan-Fried Spring Smelts with Lemon Dip

#RecipeUpTop (details below):

  • Fresh smelts;
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour;
  • 1 cup coarse-ground cornmeal;
  • 3 eggs;
  • 1 cup whole milk;
  • Salt (to taste);
  • 1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil (for frying);

For the dip:

  • 1 lemon (zest plus juice);
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise;
  • 3/4 cup sour cream;
  • Salt (to taste);

Method: Rinse the smelt and pat dry. Set up a standard breading station with one container of pure flour; one container of whisked eggs plus milk; and a third container with the remaining flour plus the cornmeal, and salt (to taste). Bread the fish by rolling them in flour, then egg wash, then the flour-cornmeal mix. Pan fry in oil over medium heat, until crispy and golden brown. Serve immediately with fresh lemon, and lemon dip.

The Details

The world would be a better place if everyone ate smelts. Seriously, it may be the perfect food: delicious; sustainable; cheap; nutritious; quick. They’re small and have short life cycles so they don’t have a chance to absorb nasty toxins like mercury, unlike some of their bigger ocean-mates (*cough* tuna *cough). And, the sort of food that strikes you one sunny, spring morning and won’t let go until you have some.

For the uninitiated, smelts are little saltwater fish that come inland to spawn in absurd and bountiful droves. They are a springtime favorite in fishing communities around the world, including the one I grew up in here on the coast of Maine. Fried up like this, they’re eaten whole – bones and all – and are satisfying on an evolutional level in the same way as fresh citrus in the dead of winter, or a perfect steak after a long day of yard work. They are a nutrient bomb, and, well, they taste like… life. It’s hard to explain, but if you know you know.

And, they are stupidly fast and easy to make.

First, give them a rinse and pat them dry:

And, look, these are going to smell a little fishy. BUT THAT’S GOOD. It’s fish. Don’t freak out, is my point.

Step two: set up your breading station:

The left is one (1) cup of all-purpose flour; the center is our eggs and milk; and the right is the remaining two (2) cups of flour with one (1) cup of coarse cornmeal and some salt.

So, confession time. The traditional way to do these is to dunk them straight into the dish on the far right, and go to the pan. But, I like a little more crunch, so I opt for the whole nine here.

Start from the left, work to the right, and put your breaded smelts on a tray:

Step three: get your oil in a pan over medium heat, and fry:

The big trick here is to watch your oil temps because it will want to get too hot. Just ride the controls to make sure everything is having a nice, relaxing time. They should only take a two (2) to three (3) minutes per side to brown and cook, so use that as your guide. Taking longer, bump the heat. Happening too fast, drop it down.

Remove to a draining rig, and hit with a little finishing salt:

Make your lemon dip by, well, mixing the ingredients together. It’s about as easy as it gets. Taste for salt, but really you want a nice clean counterpoint to these fish.

That’s it. Serve them up with a cold beer or Coke, maybe with a bottle of hot sauce or some malt vinegar nearby, and go to town. The fish is flaky and moist; the crust is crunchy and salty with satisfying flecks of cornmeal. The overall experience is wonderfully primal. Rites of Spring, indeed.

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