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Fried Smelts

Serves 4

This really takes me back to my past. I had Italian friends who loved to fry a variety of seafood on special occasions, and smelts were usually included. I had not thought about it for years. The first time I found smelts at my local seafood market, I decided to try them. The great thing about smelts and other small fish, such as fresh sardines, is that they only need to be gutted with the heads and fins removed. The bones, which are very small and soft, are edible. Therefore, the smelts you buy should be no longer than three to four inches without the head. Unfortunately, I cannot find smelts often, perhaps because they are not very popular where I live. Even the fish monger had to ask me how to cook them. If you can find smelts, this is a quick, easy and delicious way to cook them.

Ingredients

Heat oil, enough to come halfway up a high-sided sauté pan or small Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, until a deep-fry thermometer registers 365° F. (If you do not have a thermometer, use the handle end of a wooden spoon to test. When inserted in the oil, if bubbles form around the handle, the oil is hot.) Place the flour on a flat plate and stir in the salt and pepper. Coat each smelt on both sides with the flour, then shake off the excess. Carefully drop the fish, one at a time, into the hot oil, working in batches as needed. Fry until golden brown, turning once, about 4 minutes. Remove from oil, drain on paper towels and season with a little more salt. Serve immediately, with a lemon wedge on the side.

Notes: Even though it is very soft and totally edible, some people might object to eating the backbones of the smelts. They slip out of the cooked fish very easily by using your fingers or the tines of a fork. The smaller the smelt, the softer the backbone.