Food writer and cooking instructor Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two who recently navigated a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
Today, Christine revisits a sequence of smelt memories from her in-laws' feasts of the seven fishes.
Feasting on Smelts
When I was a kid, I generally thought fish "smelt" really bad.
Childhood misspellings long set aside, I was still very wary of the plate of smelts sitting on the menu of my first-ever Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes with the Rudalevige clan.
The finger-length fish -- members of a family of silvery fishes found in cool waters of the Northern Hemisphere -- were served headless, bone-in, fried in just a skim coat of cornmeal, accompanied by sour cream and pickled beets. These fish regularly showed up as part of this Polish tradition because they were cheap and plentiful, conditions that still hold appeal today, making them a good sustainable choice as deemed by many seafood watchdog groups.
That first year at the mid-afternoon Christmas Eve meal -- as well as for the next two years running -- I sat at the end of the table nearest to my yet-to-be mother-in-law. Raised in post-WWII England, she vividly remembers rationing, and religiously wastes no food that has even an iota of nutrition.
I, however, did not appreciate the supplemental crunchy calcium in the tiny smelt bones. Nonetheless, I choked them down because the flesh was sweet and tender, the outside yielding a better crunch than when my teeth hit the cartilage.
At my fourth feast of the fishes, I sat on the opposite end of the table. My father-in-law -- who doesn’t like fish bones -- uses a silver fish knife to remove in one long strand, the smelts' backbones, and sets them aside on the rim of his plate. He also has a deadly left pouring hand. So, after plenty of fine white wine, I got up the gumption to ask the burning question.
"Hey, why had no one told me I didn’t have to eat the things bones and all?!"
I glared across the table my new husband, Andy, blaming him for not filling me in on my smelt eating rights.
I’ve since become more content to let the smelt bones of contention flow like the water under the bridge, and, year-round I eat as many smelts as possible. In fact, I served them for breaktfast to the kids and their unsuspecting friends just last week.
I typically buy frozen smelts, as fresh are hard to come buy here in the Northeast. I thaw them in the fridge and douse them in lemon juice to help brighten the flavor and help the cornmeal stick. I fry them in a mix of good green olive oil for flavor and canola oil to raise the smoke point. I sometimes add a bit a cayenne to the cornmeal for a kick, but I always wait to salt them until they're out of the pan.
These things cry out for an interesting dipping (for bone-in smelt lovers) or slathering (for us wimps) sauce. The latest concoction called into service this summer is this Harissa Lemon Aioli, which gets a little pick-me-up from chopped fresh cilantro leaves.
Pan-Fried Smelts with Harissa Lemon Aioli
1 pound frozen, dressed smelts, thawed
Juice of one lemon
3/4 cup stone ground cornmeal
3/4 cup good olive oil
3/4 cup canola oil
1 cup Harissa Lemon Aioli (below)
Harissa Lemon Aioli:
3 egg yolks
1 Tablespoon lemon juice plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large glove of garlic
2 Tablespoons harissa
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup olive oil plus 1/4 cup canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: Cooking Fish in Parchment.
Photo by Christine Rudalevige.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.