Small fries

Fresh raw sea small fish smelt before cooking. Adobe Stock

January/February 2022

Beer battered smeltsElectric fryers are great as they control the temperature of the oil. It’s important that the oil be hot enough to cook and brown the smelts quickly; otherwise, they can be greasy. But a deep pot is fine. Just keep an eye on the temperature and/ or use a meat thermometer.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound of smelts, gutted, cleaned and heads removed
  • 2 cups of flour, divided
  • 12 ounces of pale beer
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • 1 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon of powdered mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • Cayenne to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Spread smelt on a large plate and pat dry.

Combine beer, 1 1/2 cups of flour, and seasonings and stir to form a smooth batter. Chill.

Lightly dust the smelt with plain flour

Heat olive and vegetable oil to approximately 350 degrees. The oil in your pot should be about two inches deep. Dip smelt into the beer batter and carefully add to hot oil–Fry in batches being careful not to crowd the fish. Fry for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown, turning once or twice while cooking.

Remove from oil and drain on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil. Serve hot with lemon wedges and your favorite seafood sauce.

By Jean Kerr

Sitting with a friend at one of my favorite New England seafood shacks, we were sharing an order of deep-fried smelts. With a satisfied smile, she said, “Ah, the ocean’s french fries.” And indeed, they lend themselves particularly well to batter and hot oil. A fresh lemon, a dip of tartar, or cocktail sauce, and you’re good to go.

Smelts, like sardines, anchovies, and herring, are food for larger fish, shorebirds and sea mammals. One of the best things about eating low down on the food chain is the reduced worry about sustainability or mercury levels. Though the New England smelt fishery has undoubtedly shrunk over the past century, population studies have allowed environmentalists to take steps to protect these little gems. Like so many natural environments, the catch is affected by fertilizer and chemical runoff, rising ocean temperatures and destruction of habitat.

Smelt belongs to a group of anadromous fish, like salmon, shad and other species. They live in saltwater but head up rivers and streams to spawn in freshwater. The smelt season is often guided by this timeline. Although there are commercial smelt fisheries that use bag and gill nets, recreational fishing is usually done with dip nets or hook and line. Standing on the side of a waterway, line fishing for smelt on a March night in Maine isn’t my idea of fun, and you’ll often see folks with a lamp and rod or net waiting for the smelt. (A touch of cabin fever, perhaps?)

Nutritionally, smelt could hardly be better for you. They are high in omega 3 fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. And a three-ounce serving can provide about 30% of your daily protein needs. All this, and they are inexpensive and delicious.

In other parts of the world like the Mediterranean, people have long appreciated smaller fish species like sardines and anchovies and consumed them as staples. Sailing the coast of Portugal some years ago, we found grilled or fried sardines on just about every cafe menu. Some sardines, a glass of vino verde and some fresh bread is a very fine meal indeed.

Smelt freeze well, but the ones I bought to test the recipe were very fresh, having just been delivered to the fish market that morning. They can be simply grilled, pan-fried, or sautéed in good oil, but this recipe, while possibly not as healthy, provides that satisfying crunch of fish and chips.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor magazine and is a regular contributor to Cruising World magazine.