Smelt with Parsley Pasta
As readers of this blog know, I love wild-harvested and locally produced foods and look forward to the return of seasonal crops. One of my favorite seasonal wild-harvested foods is the smelt, which showed up for the first time this fall the other day at the fish market. I grabbed a pound and made one of the simplest and most satisfying dishes in my repertoire: smelt baked with garlic, oil and parsley and served with pasta. Simple, easy, honest food made from a wonderful and overlooked wild-harvested seasonal ingredient: my absolute favorite way to cook.
For the last hundred years, as a result of stocking, there have been populations in the Great Lakes that never live in salt water, although they still return to their upstream spawning grounds.
The smelt run in Michgan takes place in early spring -- late March or early April -- just after the ice has broken up on the streams but usually when there is still snow on the ground.
Going to the streams to net smelt, usually on snowshoes by lantern light in the cold dawn, is a well established Michigan tradition. A phone call comes in from a friend who was watching the stream and off go the fishermen, crashing through the woods to pull them in by the netfull. Later the little fish are rolled in flour and cornmeal, then fried and piled on a platter for a once-a-year treat.
Smelt are small (6 - 7") relatives of trout and salmon, and like their larger more popular cousins they are anadromous -- that is, they live their adult lives in salt water and then travel back to their ancestral fresh water river to spawn. In the fall and winter they return from their summer grounds to mass off the shore in anticipation of whatever environmental trigger it is that starts them on their journey up the rivers. This cold-weather massing behavior makes smelt a good off-season catch for commercial fisherman, so sometime in the fall we begin to see the silvery fish lying in schools in the fish market case, and many people traditionally eat smelts around Christmas because of its seasonal appearance.
The fish, which is usually sold gutted and headless, has a sweet firm white flesh similar to trout. Like trout, their skin is scale-free, thin and edible. The most popular and common preparation for smelt is to roll them in flour or cornmeal and fry them crisp. Eaten this way, the fine bones, tails and fins just become contributors to the crunchiness of the fried fish. In boiled or baked preparations, like the one presented here, the fins and tail are less appetizing and so are removed.
This dish is an adaptation of one of Elizabeth David's succinct recipes, in Italian Food, for Alici al Gratin (Anchovies au Gratin). The dish is simplicity itself and takes only a few minutes to make.
Smelt, Garlic and Parsley Pasta
1 lb fresh smelts, gutted and headed
1/2 C plain bread crumbs
3/4 C fresh parsley, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
salt, hot sauce to taste
Remove the tails and fins from the smelt and wash them.
Mix the bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and enough olive oil to just moisten the mixture (about 2 tablespoons). Stir to combine, season to taste with salt and hot sauce (or pepper) and set aside to rest for at least 45 minutes.
Oil an ovenproof dish and arrange the fish in it. Spread the breadcrumb mixture over the fish, drizzle on more olive oil and bake in a preheated 400º oven about 13 minutes. Place under the broiler, with the fish about 4" from the heat, for about 2 minutes to brown the bread crumbs. Be careful not to burn the crumbs.
To serve, turn the contents of the baking dish into a bowl with the just-cooked pasta and toss gently (the pasta in the picture is homemade handcut tagliatelle, leftovers from an earlier day that had been frozen uncooked), adding more olive oil if necessary. The fish will fall apart into pieces as you do this and if you wish you may remove the tiny bone racks that may appear, although they are edible.