Sunday, July 18, 2010
Smelt are a small fish that migrate up the Columbia River in the early spring. They will move along close to the banks and can be dipped out with nets. When the smelt were running good (they haven't been lately), you could fill a bucket with them in no time at all. They are most commonly eaten fried. At times they were so plentiful that people would filled truck beds with them to use for garden fertilizer. My husband grew up on the Lower Columbia River where his family smelt dipped every year. My father would come from Eastern Oregon and stay with his brother when the smelt were running. Mom would clean buckets of smelt and freeze them (some were smoked first) and we would have them to eat all year. My husband and I both like smelt and while living in Portland in the early 80's as post graduate students, just like our parents, would dip smelt to smoke, freeze and fry. This is me with our oldest daughter dipping for smelt.
I had recently been lamenting how I haven't eaten smelt in years. My son works at a seafood distribution warehouse and told me fresh smelt was being shipped to Pike Place Fish Market. The tiny tot in the lamb coat is now 22 years old and works at Pike Place Market. Through a long and chaotic chain of events, her wallet and cell phone ended up at our farm one morning with her at work in Seattle and needing them, the day after the smelt alert. Taking this as a sign and opportunity, I offered to deliver her wallet and phone to her. After wading through the thirty or so people (I kid you not) blocking the way and taking pictures of the fish market, I jostled for attention among the ten or so people actually buying fish and bought 3 lbs of smelt, a bargain at $2.99/lb. "Are you going to eat that?" One woman actually asked me rather disdainfully. "Uh..YEAH." "Oh, I thought it was maybe used for bait." I try to be polite. "You could use it for that," I answered. I eventually delivered my daughter her things (she's still awfully cute!) and escaped the full body press of people crowding the market.
Once finally back home, I cleaned the smelt and froze half for a second meal later. I coated them in flour seasoned with Lawry's Seasoned Salt, though my mom simply used salt and pepper, and I've also used Old Bay Seasoning, a seafood seasoning I discovered while living in Baltimore. I fried them in hot oil until golden, turning and moving them around to cook evenly and managed to only burn myself once. They are small, cook quickly, and are best hot, so timing is everything.
Golden fried smelt for dinner with yellow rice, and a green salad and broccoli fresh from the garden. Certainly not fancy and yes, you could even call it fish bait. It was delicious though and I enjoyed every humble bite.