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Smelt: Finger Food Extraordinaire

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Dried Smelt
Koki lino/Getty Images

Smelt -- Made to be Fried:

Smelt are fine fare frozen, but if you are lucky enough to find yourself with fresh ones, you have the makings of a fantastic fried feast!

What are smelt? They look like bait -- and they are, actually. Smelt are little anadromous schooling fish that spawn in rivers and live their lives at sea, much the same way shad, striped bass and salmon do.

Smelt are vastly underfished, according to many seafood watchdog groups. This means you can eat lots of them in good conscience, and various species are available all over the world. The ones I found recently were "whitebait smelt" caught north of San Francisco Bay. Whitebait is a catch-all term for a number of species, including surf smelt, night smelt and the fatty eulachon -- so rich the Indians used them for making candles, thus their common name "candlefish."

Frozen smelt are widely available in supermarkets, and I eat them all the time. They are always flash-frozen and come in big bags, so you just grab as much as you need -- 6-7 per person for an appetizer, twice that for a main course -- thaw in the fridge and fry away.

Yes, I said fry. No other fish fits the frying pan so well. I have eaten smelt in other ways, and they are superb skewered and grilled over hardwoods like anchovies, but there is nothing quite like a good ole' smelt fry. Batters differ from place to place, but I highly recommend that you use my tempura batter I typically do with halibut. The key here is using a light batter -- otherwise you overwhelm this delicate, soft fish.

Not a fan of batter? Do what I do most often then: Season flour and fry them that way. With just a hint of spice and crust, these little delicacies fly off the plate. I have eaten 50 at a sitting. And yes, I am proud of that.

Did I say "eat them whole?" Yep. I did. Here's the deal: Smelt are small, and any fish smaller than 6 inches really should be eaten head, guts, tail and all. All you taste is the rich flavor of the meat, plus a pleasing soft crunch from the bones, which will not stick in your throat.

If, however, eating a whole fish disturbs you, you can cut the heads off with a quick diagonal slice from the top of the head toward the fins on the bottom of the fish and you will be free of both the head and guts -- I even do this on smelt larger than 6 inches.

Give smelt a try. They are easy to love, easy to cook and let's face it -- they're awesome fried, eaten with your fingers and dipped in mustard, or your choice of tartar, cocktail or hot sauce.

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