Monday, December 27, 2010

Smelts in Your Mouth

Smelts in our mouths, and in our hands, and then in our mouths again. A very good thing. Boxing Day lunch consisted of fried smelts on brioche toast (the continuing dividends of a rather harrowing South Shore excursion), with a delightful little salad of watercress, lardons, thinly sliced red onion, and some shreddies of aged Wisconsin cheddar.

Served with a duo of mayos--pickled ramps and sambal-maple. Libation, a really delicious lager from Dave's Brew Farm, an intriguing operation that's literally right on the way from our house in Saint Paul to Bide-A-Wee (though we picked up the beer at The Four Firkins, a great little craft beer store in Saint Louis Park; I stopped in at Dave's last week, but no one was around).

So, smelt: Those little silver beauties that navigate the cold waters of Lake Superior in shoals. I remember back when I was a kid hearing about epic migrations of smelt fishers to the North Shore of Lake Superior in the spring when the smelt were running. They'd wade into the icy waters and net out prodigious hauls of these little fish in the dark of the night. I also seem to recall that copious ingestion of peppermint schapps was an integral aspect of such outings, and so frequently one or more of the smelting party would be picked up off his tipsy feet by a wave, be swept out into the lake, and fetch up some months later at the locks in Sault Saint Marie, a little the worse for wear, perhaps, but still clutching both smelt net and schnapps bottle.

But maybe those were just stories.... At any rate, it seems like many years since I've heard any yarns from the smelt fishing grounds, and this brief, interesting article from the Minnesota DNR site tells why. In even briefer thumbnail: smelt are an exotic that came into the lake early in the 20th century; as another outside invader, the sea lamprey, decimated the lake trout population, smelt boomed. Once lamprey controls took effect, the trout came back, and they ate up the smelt faster than a van-load of Norwegian smelt fishermen fully fueled with schnapps. So there's still a smelt population, but nothing like what it was in the 1960s and '70s.

My smelt, they were a sort of by-catch, came up in the Halvorson nets when they were out for herring, whitefish, and lake trout. I brought home a couple of frozen pounds from my visit earlier this fall.

And now, I'm really, really leery of frozen products, especially fish, but some experience with Halvorsons has made me a believer. When I cut open the plastic cryo-wrapper on these fish and dumped them into a bowl, then stuck my nose in there, I was swept right back up to the Cornucopia beach. The fresh, clean scent had nothing fishy about it at all; except, it reminded me remarkably of the smell of a really good, freshly opened oyster, a scent of the sea, though of course the smelt live in freshwater, and oysters in salt.

The smelt were gutted but not boned (I couldn't help admiring the skill of the hands that processed these fish, each cut pristine). The tiny spines become entirely edible when the fish are fried, and we honored that time-tested method, just tossing the little fish with some salt and flour, and dropping them into canola and grapeseed oil for a couple of minutes. After that, the wee fish were rather exalted upon pedestals of home-baked brioche with a dab of homemade mayo--Mary thought the maple-sambal one was a little too sweet, preferring the pickled ramp version. I liked them both, though I could see her point, and I would make the maple-sambal one both less sweet and a bit hotter.*

Street food is all the rage these days, with gourmet food trucks proliferating in cities across the country. I'm all for that trend, but personally, if I were to open a low-overhead food biz, I think I'd like to have a concession stand. The thought occured to me as I was walking past a local ball field the other day, and I thought of the concession stand at the Little League field at the old Glen Lake School when I was growing up, and the one serving out hot beefs at the Dunn County Fair in Menomonie this summer, and the one in the Dallas town park where one of the Hay River Transition Initiative "Stone Soup" meals was held last summer. Just a simple sort of structure, a wooden counter and plywood panels that swing down to close it up at the end of business. Simple, tasty food, and a picnic table in the shade nearby to sit and eat and not worry a damn about what you were going to do next. Instead of Orange Crush and hot dogs, I'd serve out smelt po'boys with a good local beer or cider to wash it down, maybe excellent fries cooked in lard or duck fat, and some quality slaw or other salad. You wouldn't need more than that.

But for dessert, it's gotta be a Creamsicle.

Salad details below.

Watercress Bacon Salad
serves two

Good local watercress and other organic greens are available at co-ops year-round. This cress was from LaBore Farms in Faribault, MN.

1 small bunch watercress, leaves and tender stems about 2 cups washed leaves
1 slice thick cut bacon in 1/4-inch lardons
Juice of one quarter lemon
1 clove garlic sliced very very thin
Shaved red onion, about 1/4 of a small one
1/4 cup grated aged Wisconsin white cheddar

Gently render the bacon in a small fry pan. When it is lightly browned remove it from the pan and reserve. Squeeze the lemon into the pan drippings, and add a pinch of salt.

Place the cress in a salad bowl and distribute the onion and garlic slices and lardons over the top. Drizzle the drippings-lemon dressing on. Top with shredded cheddar.


* Here's my suggested proportions if you want to try the sambal-maple mayo: To 1/2 cup of mayonnaise (homemade or Hellmann's), add 2 tsp maple syrup, 1 1/2 tsp sambal, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt. Maybe start with less sambal; you can always add more. You want a balance of sweet, tart, salt, and heat that pleases you. Nice served with regular French fries or oven root veg fries.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

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