It’s a story I’ve heard a number of times.
As a little girl, my wife would go to a local Ukrainian woman’s home for piano lessons. Often before the lesson commenced, she would walk into the family sitting around the table and eating a breakfast of small fried fish — whole. They were smelt and they smelled wonderful.
The piano instructor would ask my wife if she’d like to try some, and she always happily agreed. She reminisces about this experience often, remembering how she would pop them into her mouth and enjoy the warm, crunchy fish.
Now she makes them for our family. They’re an easy, fast and quick way to get some vitamin B12 — and they’re really good. We make up a couple of pounds and sit around the table, snacking on them like popcorn. Pop, pop, pop. No muss, no fuss.
The best part: Eat the whole thing, tail and all. It took the kids a couple of fish to get used to the texture, but after that, especially after dousing them in a some tartar sauce, it was hard to get them to stop.
With La Conner’s annual Smelt Derby Festival this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to write about how we make them.
The great thing about smelt is they’re as easy to make as they are to eat. On a weekend a few weeks ago we went out to Black Rock Seafood in Anacortes, bought two pounds of smelt and took them home. (I recommend calling ahead of time to make sure they have smelt in stock.)
Once home, dump the fish into a bowl and prepare to clean them. You’ll need scissors, a sink and two bowls — one for the fish heads and guts and the other for the cleaned fish. Thankfully, with all those little fish eyes looking back at you from the bowl, cleaning smelt is easy.
The first step is to cut the head off. Make a quick, one-motion cut right behind the gills. Next, flip the fish over and, right behind the back fin, stick one tip of the scissors into the body and cut up the length of the body toward the head. Much of the guts of the fish will spill out into the bowl once you’ve finished the cut.
(Note: Smelt pros have a quicker way. Cut just a notch behind the head, then cut lengthwise up the body and tear the head off, bringing with it the guts. Either way works.)
Once the fish have been rid of their heads and guts, clean the fish out under cold running water. Repeat until all of the fish can no longer look at you, then pat dry the cleaned fish and dispose of the fish heads and guts.
Since smelt are small and fresh, there’s no need to marinate them. We dredged them in a mixture of seasoned cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. We then fried a handful of them at a time in a skillet over medium heat until they were golden brown.
Sprinkle some lemon juice over the fish and grab the tartar sauce. Once you have one, it’ll be tough to stop eating them.
Smelt Derby Festival
The La Conner Rotary Club’s 50th annual Smelt Derby Festival is Feb. 28. It’s a full day of activities for the whole family, including a fishing derby, fish printing, dancing and more. Festivities begin at 8 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.laconnerrotary.org. or call 360-466-4778.
1. Just behind the head, cut the fish’s head off in one quick motion.
2. Flip the fish over and, right behind the back fin, stick one tip of the scissors into the body and cut up the length of the body toward the head.
3. Under cold water, clean the guts out of the body of the fish.