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Fried Smelt with Garlicky Swiss Chard

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Deep-fried smelt
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A classic way to cook smelt is to fry them. Lots of people use batter, and I really like them in the light tempura batter I use with halibut sometimes. But you can go even lighter by just dredging them in seasoned flour and sauteing them in olive oil. I include the chard and garlic because they work well with the smelt; you could also use spinach or kale. Figure on 6-8 smelt per person for an appetizer, double that for a main course. I serve this with heads on -- these fish are so small everything is edible -- but feel free to behead them if you'd like. Fresh anchovies are also excellent cooked this way.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes


  • 3-6 dozen fresh or thawed smelt, depending on your appetite
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil for frying, about 1/4 cup
  • --------------------------
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (you can substitute all-purpose)
  • 1 T. kosher salt
  • 1 t. garlic powder
  • 1 t. cayenne (or more to taste)
  • 1 t. mustard powder
  • 1 t. fresh ground black pepper
  • --------------------------
  • 1 whole bunch of Swiss chard, about 2 pounds
  • 1 T. garlic powder
  • A pinch of kosher salt
  • --------------------------
  • 1-2 lemons for garnish


Make the seasoned flour by mixing all the ingredients. It should not taste overpowering -- the seasonings are there to accent the fish, not hide it.

Lay your smelt out on a platter and salt them well.

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, or until you see it begin to ripple on the surface.

While the oil is heating, dredge your smelt in the flour and set aside on a dry spot. Lay out some paper towels to drain them later.

When the oil is hot, arrange your smelt in one layer with room between each one and fry over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Turn and fry for an additional minute, maybe two.

The trick here is to do most of the cooking on one side, giving you that pretty golden crust. You give the other side less time because you don't want overcooked fish inside that pretty golden crust.

Set your smelt aside and add the chard. Turn and stir it constantly, while sprinkling in the garlic powder and a bit of salt. The chard will release a lot of water, so when it does, turn the heat up to high and keep stirring until it is all wilted -- about 3 minutes.

To serve, lay down a bit of chard and arrange the smelt on top. Serve with lemon wedges for a bit of acidity.

What to drink? A hoppy ale or a pilsner is perfect here, as would a sparkling wine such as Prosecco. You could also go with a crisp white; I like chenin blanc or verdelho.

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