Back in June we stopped at Morey’s Fish Market on the way to my sister-in-law’s cabin and I bought a pound of smelt. It had been in my freezer since then, while I waited for the right occasion. I finally decided that it must be lucky to welcome the New Year by eating fish somewhere in the world, and so I let it thaw.
I first ate smelt in the early 1990s in Chicago. I remember hearing about the annual smelt frys along the lakefront in April, where people would come to net smelt and fry them up right there. They actually bite the heads off– though mine from Morey’s came without heads and nicely gutted. I believe the season lasted only a few days (2 weeks max), when the smelt were “running.” You don’t hear about smelt frys much anymore, although in Minnesota there is still an April tradition in some parish and firemen halls.
A little online research has informed me that smelt are an exotic species, introduced from 1912 in a Michigan river to feed salmon. They’re an Atlantic ocean fish that spawns in fresh water, and their population made its way to the great lakes where it has had several surges in population, followed by drastic reductions. In Lake Superior, the smelt population is tied to the lake trout population. When sea lampreys (how nasty do those sound) were eating the lake trout, the smelt did very well. Now that the lampreys have been knocked down, the trout eat the smelt. Personally, I’d rather have trout than smelt any day. The smelt population in the Midwest pretty much crashed in 1979 and is not expected to recover. For more on smelt, click here.
In Chicago, people still gather to fry smelt during the season, though they usually don’t catch anything. Instead, they sit around the fire remembering the good old days you could net smelt by the dozen, cut off their heads, gut them and fry them up on site. And they still have their pot of boiling oil, though more often they drop purchased shrimp into it instead of smelt.
I followed the advice on interenet sites to dip the smelt in an egg wash and bread them with flour, bread crumbs and Old Bay seasoning. I fried them in a pan with about an inch of very hot canola oil in it. The very nice thing about smelt is that they are small and you don’t need much oil. You can also pan-fry them, but I always find my fish doesn’t cook that nice, deep brown I like and usually sticks when I pan fry. I went all out on this one, with good results. Tasted as promised, like a good, crunchy, fishy french fry!
I served them with a side of Israeli cous cous with butternut squash and made cocktail sauce: ketchup, horseradish and lemon juice.