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Pan Seared Smelts & Gathering Around The Simple Things

Pan Fried Smelts & Salad

It’s the little things that make me happy. Not just smiling. Truly happy. The little things that instantly make my eyes sparkle, my memories ramble and my step take a lighter beat.

A wine my grandfather served me on my last Christmas home that I spot on a menu in a restaurant downtown. The sound of the foam bubbling away after a cold beer is poured too fast in a glass. The crack of a spoon hitting the burnt sugar crust of a freshly made creme brulee.

Opening a book at the very first pages, heart and mind ready to dive in, wrapped around with words, images, and possibilities. Lifting one’s head after a day at work and be greeted by the most beautiful sunset.


Little pleasures. Finding them in all things around us. Sometimes, it can be as simple as seeing a familiar food from childhood. Like smelts. I know, weird… I think the guy behind the fish counter at the market thought I was mildly eccentric when my eyes grew wide open at the sight of freshly caught smelt in his display.

The mere sight if these tiny little fish, bright of their silver and gold reflections, transported me back to my family’s chalet in the Southern Alps of France. Every school holiday was spent there, skiing in the winter, hiking and swimming in the summer. Lots and lots of fishing too.

It was a place meant for simple things. Like a dinner made of pan fried smelts and a big salad. Food did not define every waking moment of our time together. Being together around the table breaking bread and passing plates did. Cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters. Food was the excuse to be a family, to argue and make up.

Pan Fried Smelts

I remember my mother dipping the smelts in lemon juice, then breadcrumbs flavored with freshly cut herbs from the garden, and quickly pan searing them in a little olive oil. A good sprinkle of salt and pepper and we were good to go. The more people at the table and the bigger the pile of fish. And the bigger the sighs coming from the kitchen as my mom kept on cooking and cooking the tiny little things.

Pan seared smelts are not most refined dinner items but to me there are the heroes of family moments I cherish everyday. Hence the little skip in my heart when I spotted them at the market. I was sure not to find them again for a long while so I got more than enough for two dinners. I loved seeing my mom’s eyes sparkle when I pulled a bag out of the freezer for us one evening.

Pan Fried Smelts

I knew instantly where her mind had wandered. I recognized that little smile at the corner of her mouth. I could imagine the memories going through her head. I pulled out a skillet and started preparing dinner. She set the table and told me a few stories.

It was my turn to nurture her. Around something as simple as plate of tiny seared fish. The connection was solid and gave us room to add this moment to the memory bank. And our tastebuds…

Pan Fried Smelts

Pan Seared Smelts:

Serves 4

2 pounds smelts (they usually come gutted and cleaned up but ask your fishmonger to do it for you if needed)
1 cup Panko style breadcrumbs (gluten free or not – your choice)
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped thyme
juice of 2 lemons
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Rinse the smelts under cold water, dry thoroughly with paper towels. Reserve.
Place the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and thyme in a large shallow plate. Place the lemon juice in another shallow plate.
Heat up one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.
Dip about 1/4 of the smelts in the lemon juice, then toss in the breadcrumbs. Place them in the skillet in one single layer and sear for about 3 minutes on each side.
Repeat with the remaining smelts, lemon juice, breadcrumbs and oil. Serve immediately with a simple side salad.

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Seanna Lea February 8, 2012 um 4:11 pm

I love your stories of growing up. It sounds so wonderfully congenial.

Angie J. February 8, 2012 um 4:11 pm

Beautifully written! ๐Ÿ™‚


Nicole @Eat This Poem February 8, 2012 um 4:16 pm

What a gorgeous lunch. Now if only I could convince my husband to try them! It's worth a shot, I think.

Unknown February 8, 2012 um 4:21 pm

This really has me salivating. And…chuckling too. We were in Ireland recently. I saw "smelt" on the breakfast menu. Always rather adventurous, I mentioned that I might order that one morning to be brave. The owner talked me out of it because he said I would smell the rest of the day. I passed and now, I continue to be so curious about these little fish. Yours look so delicious. I wish I could taste it. Guess I'll have to make it!

Eric February 8, 2012 um 5:33 pm

LOVE the shot of the fish on ice!

HY February 8, 2012 um 6:08 pm

What a lovely post! I think one of the most wonderful things about food is how it can evoke certain memories and transport you to a different time and place. Thank you for the dinner idea!

jgainer February 8, 2012 um 6:11 pm

I really like this post. Reading your words prompted my mind to lift and wander to my own experiences of generational cooking – memories marked by the rattle of ice in an old-fashioned glass, the rhythm of music playing in the background, the appearance of different varieties of cornbread due to disagreements between my aunts regarding what to prepare and the shared joy in the result. These gatherings happily continue on today – the main difference being that now I'm old enough to share in the wine or bourbon being poured. Please forgive that my appreciation of your story is overtly self-serving!

Pennie February 8, 2012 um 10:44 pm

How lovely! This is one of my husband's favorite things–a memory from his childhood as well. I'll have to fry these up for him next time I see smelts at my fishmonger…

Barbara February 8, 2012 um 11:41 pm

A lovely post Helene.

Rhonda February 9, 2012 um 1:32 am

My family used to go 'smelting', we would eat smelt until we ere smelted out! I saw some at our local grocery but didn't pick them up…afraid I wouldn't be able to duplicate that family memory and be disappointed. After reading your post, I'm now disappointed that I didn't get them when I could have.

Sylwia February 9, 2012 um 11:59 am

Helen,your stories are always very very breathtaking!! It reminds me my childhood as well!! Beutiful writing!!Regards!

alexandra February 9, 2012 um 12:10 pm

Smelts are my favorite! There is a great BYOB in Philadelphia called Dmitri's, and they serve the best smelts with skordalia (a Greek dipping sauce). These look even better โ€” light and crisp.

Love your work. I got your book (Plate to Pixel) for Xmas and read it cover to cover in just a few days. So much fun! Of course I need to revisit chapters, but I couldn't put it down. Thanks!

Kristin Nicholas February 9, 2012 um 12:18 pm

Love smelts. I did not have the good fortune to grow up on them but luckily discovered them as an adult. They are so easy to cook too! I will try the lemon juice next time. Hope they make it to our market soon too. Thanks. Lovely photos, as usual.

thelittleloaf February 9, 2012 um 12:34 pm

These look absolutely gorgeous – only you could make little fish look so incredibly beautiful!

James Brewer February 9, 2012 um 1:06 pm

Very lovely post. I always look forward to reading your posts and seeing the amazing photos.

Helene February 9, 2012 um 2:35 pm

Alexandra: Skordalia is one of my favorite sauces! My friend who is a chef here has a Mediterranean oriented restaurant and does Greek inspired dishes from time to time. Skordalia always end up on my plate ๐Ÿ™‚
It would be great with the smelts!

Shelby February 9, 2012 um 3:50 pm

What a heart-warming, equally nostalgic and newly inspired post… Thank you so much for sharing…

Clarisse February 9, 2012 um 8:12 pm

This looks absolutely yummy and its a lovely story to go with it. Quick culinary question, could you leave the heads of the fishies for the taste? I love doing that with sardines for example as it flavors the dish better…

Anyways, as a foodie blogger myself trying to improve on my recipes, I thought I would ask.


Helene February 9, 2012 um 8:22 pm

Clarisse: yes, you can. I would have but they already came with the heads off.

The Cozy Herbivore February 9, 2012 um 10:58 pm

These look absolutely beautiful, and I love the memory associated with them! My girlfriend is a huge smelt/sardine/herring fan– I must make these for her some time!

Marilyn Miller February 10, 2012 um 3:19 am

When I was a little girl my grandfather fished for smelt. He would bring it home and my mother would cook it very similar to this. What a treat! I haven't had anything like it since.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 10, 2012 um 3:24 am

These pictures are gorgeous!!!!

tania@mykitchenstories February 10, 2012 um 9:05 am

O my what amazing pictures, of course. very nice recipe

Divya @flavourfiesta February 10, 2012 um 6:02 pm

What a lovely and well written post! I love how food has the ability to bring back memories and sometimes trigger an emotional response.

Rocky Mountain Woman February 10, 2012 um 6:33 pm

I have never had smelt! This looks so tasty that I may have to talk to my fish guy….

Rose /Magpie February 11, 2012 um 3:44 am

Smelt brings back childhood memories for me too.crunching my way through a mountain of these tiny fish smeared with masala and crispy fried. Little fish chips!

Unknown February 11, 2012 um 4:31 pm

wow che delizia! Meravigliosa, questa ricetta ๐Ÿ™‚ Un bacio!

Yeruti recetas faciles February 11, 2012 um 11:45 pm

These look absolutely beautiful…

Torviewtoronto February 12, 2012 um 3:21 am

looks fabulous can't wait for the season when we get lots of smelt ๐Ÿ™‚

Veren February 12, 2012 um 9:20 am

Thank you for this wonderful post. simple things bring true happiness, a totally agree with. one of this things are always your posts, your words and thoughts, as muh as your photographs.
One just never can thanks often enough for this kind of presents to our life. So Thank you very much.

Elena February 12, 2012 um 3:03 pm


M. February 12, 2012 um 7:13 pm

Lovely post and beautiful pics!

Foodie February 13, 2012 um 5:53 pm

Wow, you made fish, which I'm not the biggest fan of, look absolutely amazing!!!

Ryan February 13, 2012 um 8:26 pm

Those look really good!

SweetwaterGifts February 14, 2012 um 8:16 pm

We had piles of these for dinner growing up in Wisconsin…I must have been 5 years old the last time I had them! I can't imagine where I would ever find them. Things like these are rare finds indeed!

Rusty Gates February 15, 2012 um 2:04 pm

I remember when I was 9, staying with my cousins in Forestville CA, opening the door to my uncle's mysterious smoke shack. Tiny smoked fish, hundreds of them! Boy, I never knew they would taste so good. Never had them ever again.

Chloe February 18, 2012 um 2:33 am

I love your kitchenware!

Laurie February 20, 2012 um 7:24 pm

Oh my goodness, me too!! Smelts.. among so many favorite dishes my mom made. I think my memories of them are so fond because it was the first fish I learned to clean and debone.. such tiny little bones too. ๐Ÿ™‚ She always served them with mashed potatoes.. don't know why.. but that was just her one American tradition she adopted that we were all crazy for. Dipping smelts in mashed potatoes and scooping them up like the smelt was our fork. ๐Ÿ™‚ So glad you posted about these.. now I'm going to have to travel an hour away to the fish market to find smelts!

Tobias Musterwalze February 22, 2012 um 7:56 pm

Hey, the shot with fish inside the ice cubes i cool!

tania@mykitchenstories February 26, 2012 um 5:32 am

This is a nice story, I really like it. I am not quite sure what smelts are but they look delicious

Marita Madeloni February 28, 2012 um 5:30 am

If I can get my hands on some smelts, I'm definitely going to try this recipe. I absolutely LOVE the photo of the raw smelts on ice, beautiful.

Olga March 15, 2012 um 10:40 pm

I just loved your storie. While I was reading, I remembered my summer days on my grandmother's house. Good memories…

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