(Dunno if the plural of smelt is smelt or smelts.) Anyway, I have some. They are beautiful, fresh smelts (caught within the last 24 hours). They are cleaned (sans head and viscera). I thought a ceviche/crudo preparation might be nice but the only recipes I can find all involve frying them first.
Anyone out there have any thoughts on how I should try marinating these?
A couple of ideas-
1. Smoked: So good smoked with a light wood, such as apple or cherry...
2. Pan fried or grilled. Season with salt, lemon(preserved lemon is so so good here) olive oil and white pepper. Let flavors marry and then grill or pan fry(cast iron is my suggestion...)
3. Speaking from experience(it is a custom to bite the head off of the first smelt you catch...The definition of nasty, to be sure. Maybe this is just a Maine thing? Or maybe this is just what you find yourself doing when you are in a 5x7 shack in the middle of the night, in the DEAD cold, and having consumed more than your fair share of cheep beer?...), I would say you'd be best to cook the smelt and make a marinade or sauce that captures those ceviche flavors of spice, citrus, herb, salt...
Not just a Maine thing, in Chicagoland, biting the head off the first smelt was meant to bring us luck ... something that could certainly be used these days, what with declining smelt yields and all (I challenge anyone to find someone who says they run as well today as they did twenty years ago ... it's not even close).
Anyway, our cooking method was always a very simple fry:
- cut heads off smelt, slice up the center-bottom with scissors, clean and either reserve innards for salmon fishing bait or, ideally in my mind, dump right back in the water ... and pray some of those eggs become future smelt (see above for reasons why)
NB: I always found the best smelt, size wise, were larger than anchovies (+4x to +6x) but smaller than sardines (-3x). The larger smelts never seemed to have the right texture to me. Maybe it was just a psychological thing. I'm also guessing they were older, at least a year older.
- cast iron skillet
- vegetable oil, a couple inches worth
- eggs, as necessary, beaten well
- seasoned flour or cornmeal (I found flour best a it kept things light)
dip cleaned smelt into egg, then dredge thru flour or cornmeal;
slip into pan so as not to splatter oil on yourself;
cook until brown, maybe three minutes
Filleting seems too much effort to me. The bones are small and add a crunchy texture to the fish.
Oh, and we always called the plural "smelties," frequently with a shaking fist and psychotic gaze ... what can I say, we loved our smelties!
I would think they might be too fatty for ceviche-ing, and I'm wondering if frying might be what makes the bones edible. All I know is that fried is the only way I've had them. Fond memories - helping a couple of friends gut a huge washtub full of these they'd caught - IN the washtub! - during a hooligan run in Cook Inlet, near Anchorage (hooligan is the Alaskan name for smelt), and then helping them eat about half of those little darlings as the one guy's wife fried them and dumped them onto a newspaper-covered table.
If you do try marinating them I'd suggest lemon juice with a dash or two of Tabasco, or maybe a fruitier hot sauce such as Tapatio or Cholula.
Ok - so here's the update. I filleted four of the smelts to make them smaller (they headless fishes - about 5" long). I marinate them in rice vinegar, garlic, ginger and soy sauce. They tasted good but were *very* chewy. A ha! This is why people don't eat them raw.
So, we dredged the rest in Wondra and pan fried them. I also dredged and pan fried the rest of the marinated fillets. Wow - they all very good. The marinated ones had a hint of garlic and ginger.
Thanks for your help.