It’s spring and a Great Lakes Fisherman’s thoughts turn to Fresh Fried Smelt!
I remember my Uncles Sal and Pascal getting up before dawn, with fishing nets, pails and who knows what else to fish for smelts, bringing the stinky fish home, a little bigger than minnows and quick frying a batch for breakfast. I thought they were so mean to catch the tiny fish and then to eat them with their heads, tails and all! I always think of them in the spring and especially when I see the men lined along lake Michigan with their nets, poles, chairs, coolers, and grills.
All along the rocks of Lake Michigan the season’s early bird fishermen are out with smelt nets to catch the tiny delectable fish. Lucky for me smelt are also available fresh or frozen in the seafood section of local markets.
A classic way to cook smelt is to fry them. Some fishermen cook them in a frying pan on the grill—frying them on the spot, seasoned with beer, salt and pepper.
I like them dredged in flour or panko whole wheat breadcrumbs and seasonings and sautéed in olive oil.
About 16-18 smelt per person.
½ pound (about 36) Lake caught fresh smelt, heads removed (some people leave the heads on, the smelt are so small everything is edible, but…) rinse, lay out individually on paper towels to dry.
Olive oil for frying, about 1/4 cup
½ cup whole wheat Panko bread crumbs
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
Lay smelt out on a paper towels and salt.
Mix Panko crumbs and all the seasonings in a medium bowl.
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 2-3 minutes.
While the oil is heating, dredge your smelt in seasoned Panko breadcrumb mixture and set aside. Lay out paper towels to drain the smelt after quick frying.
When the oil is hot, arrange smelt in one layer with room between and fry over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Turn and fry for an additional minute. Do most of the cooking on one side for golden crust.
The other side takes less time and you don’t want overcooked fish. Set your smelt aside on paper towels to drain off excess fat. Wipe pan clean with paper towel and repeat for next batch heating fresh olive oil. Keep fried smelt warm in low oven 300°F. if making a large batch.
Serve with peeled sliced cucumbers in seasoned rice vinegar.