The one who smelt it … gets to broil them up with a little cornmeal coating. It’s almost too easy.

RANDOLPH
– Behold the smelt. A fish so easy to catch, clean and cook, it’s a
wonder the suckers don’t crawl from the water and directly into your
oven, rolling themselves around in bread crumbs as they go.

No,
really. I have cleaned my share of fish over the years and it is
typically an afternoon’s worth of stinky labor. Scaling, cutting,
slicing and gutting until cats come from miles around just for a sniff
of your fingers.

In Part 1 of your smelt lesson, we discussed
the techniques of catching a smelt. Flip this page and read this week’s
Go & Do, sucker. I don’t feel like repeating it all.

I was
faced with cleaning a bucket filled with 78 smelts, each of them dead
but staring at me from those gleaming black eyes. It was daunting, but
not so daunting as even a dozen bigger fish like perch or bass.

My
coach for this fish bake was my memere-in-law Lillian Bussiere, a woman
who has cleaned and cooked more fish than Robinson Crusoe. And thank
God she was around, because otherwise, I might have just crammed all
the smelt between pieces of bread and made a fish sandwich.

To
clean a smelt, you need only to hack its head off and slit its belly.
The innards slide out with one pass of the thumb as though the smelt,
through years of evolution, has made itself more accommodating to the
dinner plate by assembling its guts in easily-removed order.

The
severed heads seem to smile as you cast them aside, so eager are these
fish to become your main course. They don’t even stink! The smelt smelt
like cucumbers.

Because of the smelt’s efficient size, hacking
can be done with scissors rather than a knife. This is both less
violent and much neater. The tail is left intact, so once the head is
gone and guts removed, you are onto your next victim.

The beheaded smelts are then rinsed and prepared for the oven.

Those
of you who know me understand that I am no culinary master. It’s true I
can grill a decent steak and I almost never louse up a bowl of ramen
noodles. Beyond that though, you don’t want me in your kitchen. Not
since the incident of 1997, anyway.

In spite of that, the cooking of smelt is simple enough even for a rube like me.

Each fish is given a quick bath in egg. This helps keep the batter on when it is delivered into the oven, I’m told.

I
was given two options for breading the smelts. One was bread crumbs,
the other cornmeal. We slid a half dozen of the headless fish through
the bread crumbs and more through the cornmeal and arranged them on a
cookie sheet.

The fish were then delivered into an oven, broiled
a few minutes, slathered with butter, broiled a few more. I expected an
additional step, possibly involving curry, mincing or other things I
don’t understand.

But there was nothing else. That was all. The smelt were ready to go.

A
word about bones. I’m told that frying smelt will melt the bones
completely while broiling only softens them. Even so, I found little
problem eating the broiled fish without removing any bones. They crunch
very little and don’t stab you in the gums like the bones of other,
more cantankerous fish.

That being said, you can open up your
smelt and simply peel the backbone out of it if you want them gone.
Again, the courteous smelt has equipped itself with a spine that is
easily removed so as not to offend the bone-squeamish.

I am not
a big fish eater. When tasked with dining on a gilled swimmer, I bathe
it in lemon juice and, thus, most fish taste the same to me. The smelt
I would compare to perch, though the flavor of smelt is more subdued.
The batter gives it a little extra texture and flavor. I preferred the
cornmeal-battered fish to that of bread crumbs.

Four smelt were
enough for me. They go good, I’m told, with just about anything. To me,
potatoes on the side would have been just the thing. Eating fish with
no side dish always feels to me like a fraternity initiation.

There
are those who can eat fish twice or three times a week. Smelt would
make a perfect fit for these kinds of weirdoes. A haul from one
afternoon in a shack will garner enough of the fish to provide 10 meals
or more.

Me, I’m good eating fish three, maybe four times a year. Any more than that feels like punishment.

Tasty tidbits

What: Smelt

How many: About six per person makes a meal

Catching: Easy

Cleaning: Easy

Cooking: Fast and easy

Taste: Not fishy like mackerel


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