There are many things to love about living in California: the great weather, the diversity of people, the beautiful scenery... and for those of us who like to cook, the abundance of local, fresh food, and the relatively easy access to the people who produce it. Where I live, here in the northern part of the state, that's especially true. A quick thirty minute drive, and you're standing in the middle of a lovely family vineyard. Just a bit farther west are two of the country's premier wine-growing regions. Keep driving, and before you know it, you'll find yourself in one of my favorite "food" cities, which is rumored to have more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States.
Our kids never tire of visits to the farmers' market. My girls' favorites are the fruit stalls. Their brother likes visiting the lady who sells freshly-baked pretzel croissants. All three love the honey man, naturally. And when summer hits, Daddy gravitates toward the siren song of the multi-colored plums. As for me? I'm just happy to be there. Like a kid in a candy store, I can hardly decide what to pick first.
The farmers' market is also a great way to teach kids about, and get them to try, new foods. I never shy away from talking to my kids about where food really comes from. I don't go into toomuch detail - they're only 5 and 8, after all, so the actual butchering can probably wait a couple more years - but my children know that eggs and drumsticks come from chickens, bacon is from pigs, and fish fillets come from... um, fishes. It probably helps that I am not squeamish about these facts, so my kids aren't either.
In fact, they often pick up on my excitement about trying new things. Or at least, they find it amusing. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn to a pile of tiny, silvery-pink fishes, glimmering on their bed of crushed ice. Their shiny black eyes called to me. "What are you going to do with those?" my oldest asked me as my bounty was double-bagged with ice. "I'm going to fry them, and we're going to eat them for lunch," I told him. "Really? Cool!" I was pleasantly surprised by his reaction, but skeptical that he would actually try one when the time came.
I could not have been more wrong. Not only did he try one, he loved them. As in, could not stop eating them. Seriously, people. I brought home a pound of those slippery little suckers, and my boy probably ate two-thirds of them on his own. Here are some of his comments:
"Oh, man. These are awesome!"
"Do you think they'd be good dipped in barbecue sauce? I'm going to get some."
"Hey girls, did you try one yet? They're really good."
"Hey Mommy, did you notice how you can still see everything even after they're cooked? Look, that's the mouth, the fins, and there's his eye. Cool, huh?"
"Look, Mommy. I'm going to eat the eyeball. What? They're crunchy."
The kid won't take one bite of a strawberry, peach, or grape without a fight. (What kid doesn't like grapes, for pete's sake?) But my son eats almost any vegetable you put in front of him, will munch tobiko by the spoonful, and - clearly - has no problem chowing down a boatload of tiny fried fish. Wonders never cease.
Adapted from Hank Shaw's recipe at About.com
These might seem adventurous for the home cook, but really, they are so small - about the size of my index finger - that you don't even have to gut or de-bone them. Just fry 'em up whole.* They're sort of like french fries, only with more flavor. Be careful not to overcook them, or they get chewy. We tried them dipped in barbecue sauce (my son's suggestion), sriracha mayonnaise, and homemade tarter sauce, and also with a simple squeeze of lemon. We each had our favorites. These smelt are light and crunchy, but like any fried food, they are also pretty filling. You will probably only need a dozen or so per person to serve as an appetizer or with a cool, green salad for lunch. Unless, of course, you have an 8-year-old boy in your house, in which case, you'd better stock up.
1 pound fresh smelt (or flash-frozen smelt, thawed in the fridge)
1 cup flour (I used a mix of whole wheat and all-purpose)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt, plus a few good pinches for sprinkling
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder (original recipe called for mustard powder, but I had none)
healthy dash cayenne pepper
olive oil for frying
Gently rinse the smelt under cold water; lay out on a paper towel to drain while you season the flour. In a large, shallow bowl, add the flour, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne. Stir together with a fork. Sprinkle additional Kosher salt on the smelt.
In a large, heavy frying pan, pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom to about 1/4 inch deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat.
Working in batches, dredge about 1/3 of the smelt in the flour mixture. I found it was easiest to remove the coated fish to a large, fine mesh sieve and very gently shake off the excess flour before frying.
When the oil is hot (it will appear to "ripple" but should not be smoking), carefully add the smelt in a single layer and fry for 2-3 minutes, depending on size. Turn and fry for an additional minute or two. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain excess oil. Repeat the dredging and frying for the remaining two batches of smelt. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon or your choice of dipping sauce.
Serves 5-6 as an appetizer (or enough for 2 adults and 1 really hungry child)
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*I've heard that some people do prefer to lop off the heads before cooking. Weirdos. ;)