My grandfather was a trouble maker.
He was the youngest of seven children and I can safely say he never lost his mischievous and child-like streak. He was a prankster, a laugher and a storyteller. My sister loves to tell the story of when, as I was reading in a hammock in our backyard, my grandfather snuck out of the garden where he was tending to his tomatoes and got on this hands and knees to crawl under the hammock to knock me out of it from below. He was in his late 70s and was giggling during the entire episode.
My grandfather was always active too, constantly on the go. For many years when I was a child springtime meant late night trips to go smelt fishing. We’d drive to a pier on a lake north of the city, unfurl a square net and dip it into the water and pull it up full of wriggling small fish. We’d usually run into family or family-friends in the same location. It was a fishing tradition that my grandparents had took part in ever since they had landed in Toronto. Gathering food in any way that was traditional (and money saving) like fishing, mushroom hunting or collecting dandelion leaves for salad, were regular occurrences. In fact, in the 1970s my grandfather would go with extended family to Lake Ontario, near Ashbridges bay, to fish for smelt at night. And ever the jokster, he would slip live fish into his sister’s pockets when they weren’t paying attention.
As I got older, the smelt started to disappear. I remember the few times we would go fishing at 1 or 2 in the morning only to come back with just a few. The population crashed in Lake Simcoe in the mid-1990s and a series of invasion species are suspected to keep their populations at bay. I haven’t had smelt in years so when I found them at a local grocery store, I snapped them up.
Smelts were a treat – not a full meal, but a full plate that we would share after a plate of pasta. Other than the frying, they weren’t dressed up in any way. Just fresh fish, fried to a crisp. So my pictures for this recipe don’t have a sprinkling of parsley, or a gremolata for added colour. This is just pure fish, how they were enjoyed. The only thing missing is my Nonno, eating the fried smelt with the heads still on, head first into his mouth with a gleam in his eye, knowing it would gross me out. It always gave him a good laugh.
1/2 pound fresh smelts, cleaned and patted dry with paper towels
1/4 cup all-purpose flour for dredging
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
Canola oil for frying
Rinse and clean the fish. If you pick them up at a local grocery store, you most likely will find the smelt are already cleaned and the head is removed. If you are lucky enough to be fishing for these little beauties, you might have fish so small that you can fry them whole and that includes leaving the head on. I know, a scary thought, but it’s crispy and good after frying. It was my Aunt Maria that got me to try smelt in the first place and she was right: the crispier the better. And those small ones are the best. For the larger smelt, remove the heads and the innards. After you rinse the fish, make sure that the fish are lightly patted with a towel. Toss smelt with herbs and salt and pepper. Then toss in flour.
Using a large heavy metal skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Use enough oil to submerge the smelt halfway.
Be sure the oil is hot before frying the smelt or the fish will become too oily.
Add the fish to the oil. Do not put too many in the pan to ensure they aren’t touching each other. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, flipping halfway through until the fish are a golden brown. Serve hot!