One of the most classic ways to cook smelt is to fry them. Lots of people use batter, and I really like them in the light tempura batter I occasionally use with halibut. But you can go even lighter by just dredging them in seasoned flour and sauteing them in olive oil, like in this recipe. I include the chard and garlic because they work well with the smelt; you could also use spinach or kale.
- 3 to 6 dozen fresh or thawed smelt (depending on your appetite)
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 1/ 4 cup olive oil for frying
- 1 whole bunch of Swiss chard (about 2 pounds)
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- For the Seasoned Flour:
- 1 cup whole wheat flour (you can substitute all-purpose)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne (or more to taste)
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- For the Garnish: 1-2 lemons, wedged
Make the seasoned flour by mixing the flour, salt, garlic powder, cayenne, mustard powder, and black pepper. It should not taste overpowering, as the seasonings are there to accent the fish, not hide it.
Lay the smelt out on a platter and salt them well.
Heat a large frying pan over high heat for a minute or two. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan by about 1/8 inch. You do not want the smelt swimming in oil. Let this oil heat up for 2 to 3 minutes, or until you see it begin to ripple on the surface.
While the oil is heating, dredge your smelt in the flour and set aside on a dry spot. Lay out some paper towels to drain them later.
When the oil is hot, arrange your smelt in one layer with room between each one and fry over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Turn and fry for an additional 1 to 2 minutes.
Set your smelt aside and add the chard. Turn and stir it constantly, while sprinkling in the garlic powder and a bit of salt. The chard will release a lot of water, so when it does, turn the heat up to high and keep stirring until it is all wilted, about 3 minutes.
To serve, lay down a bit of chard and arrange the smelt on top. Serve with lemon wedges for a bit of acidity.
Plan on six to eight smelt per person for an appetizer. If serving as a main course, double that portion.
When frying, the trick is to do most of the cooking on one side, giving you that pretty golden crust. You give the other side less time because you don't want overcooked fish inside that pretty golden crust.
Smelt are very small and all parts of the fish are edible, including the head. But feel free to chop the heads off before serving if you'd like.
What to drink? A hoppy ale or a pilsner is perfect here, as would a sparkling wine such as Prosecco. You could also go with a crisp white, such as Chenin blanc or Verdelho.
Fresh anchovies can be substituted in place of smelt, as they are also excellent cooked this way.