From the Ground Up: Little fish in the sea for summer
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
It’s the summer treat we’ve all been waiting for – abundant wild salmon. The markets are now full of beautiful, deep-orange, salmon fillets, steaks, and roasts. Our grills and ovens are fired up, and the lemons sliced and ready. It’s time to indulge in our favorite fish again. The local salmon fishery, closed in 2008 because the population had crashed, opened again this year with predictions that 800,000 salmon would return this fall to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta to spawn, which is great news for all.
However, in the excitement of the return to plenty of our big, beloved fish, let’s not overlook the little fish that populate our ocean waters as well – sardines, anchovies, and smelt. These are in season now, so look for them at Mission Fresh Fish at the Davis Farmers Market, and at local fish counters throughout our region.
You can make a feast of these little fish just as easily as you can with salmon, as long as you’re prepared for a different scenario.
First of all, be prepared for whole fish. It’s very rare to see fresh fillets of sardines or anchovies, smelt are too tiny to fillet, and all are too small for steaks or roasts. Instead, sardines and anchovies are cleaned, then cooked whole, head to tail, usually on a hot grill, where the skin crisps to golden, and the sweet meat cooks through to flaking tenderness. Count on five to eight sardines per person, and even more anchovies, depending upon how hungry your crowd is. But how best to eat them?
Granted, it takes a deft skill with fork and knife at the table to fillet first one side of the sardine or anchovy, then gingerly lift up and remove the backbone with its still-attached head and tail and thus free the bottom fillet. Once this initial task is completed, the two fillets remaining are fork-ready. For a less refined, more casual approach, simply follow the Marseille tradition of picking up the fish in both hands and snacking the succulent middle flesh right off the bone, first one side and then the other. When done, add the bones to the discard platter.
Smelt are a different story. The ones you’ll find at the markets – and they are plentiful now – are very small, narrow fish, sometimes no more than three inches long. These are usually fried and eaten whole – yes, head, tail, everything – just like a French fry. Not even any bones to stack.
In recent years, fried smelt have become incredibly popular in bay area restaurants like Kokkari in San Francisco and Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, where they served in paper cones, just like French fries. In fact, we know people who drive to Bistro Jeanty just to have the fried smelt, sometimes called Petits Fritures, which are served with a lemon or red pepper or some other version of aïoli, the garlicky mayonnaise that goes so well with Mediterranean food, and crisp, cold rosé or white wine.
This July, however, you need go only as far as Winters to savor fried smelt and aïoli at Winters’ first annual Bastille Day Feast at the historic Wolfskill Ranch, a fundraiser for the Winters Farm to School program. The smelt, cooked on site, will come crisp and hot, right out of the fryer to your table, just the way they should be served. If you have never cooked smelt, this is your opportunity for a first-hand look at how it’s done.
The multi-course family-style meal, of which the fried smelt are the second course, will be cooked and served by Buckhorn Catering of Winters, and will celebrate the bounty of the region, including heirloom tomatoes, Rominger Ranch lamb cooked five different ways, zucchini and Gruyere gratins, and old-fashioned meringues with fresh berries. Local wines, of course, will be served, and the event, which is by pre-paid ticket only, features a private tour of the USDA Wolfskill Facility led by John Preece, the facility director, and an auction of very special items, including a Tuscan dinner for 12 cooked and served by Davis chef Jonathan Moon, and a plein air painting of your table the day of the feast by local artist Jesse Pruitt, whose distinctive work lines the walls of the popular Winters watering hole, Preserve.
Choosing the Freshest Fish
• All fresh fish should have shiny, slippery skins that glisten.
• The eyes of whole fish, no matter the size, should be bright and clear. Avoid fish with cloudy eyes.
• Fish should never smell ‘fishy’, but fresh and clean, sometimes even like fresh sea air.
Sardines and Anchovies
• Choose slippery, shiny, and bright-eyed.
• These are delicate and prone to tearing, so choose firm, not torn.
• Ask the fishmonger if they are cleaned. If not, you will need to do this yourself by slitting the underbelly and removing the intestines, liver, etc, from the cavity. Rinse well and pat dry.
• Choose slippery, shiny and bright eyed.
• No need for cleaning.
These are quick and easy to make. Serve them with a dipping sauce, if you’d like, followed by a salad to make a full meal.
1 and one-half pounds Pacific Ocean smelt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Canola oil or other light vegetable oil for frying
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 lemons, quartered
Pat the fish dry. Spread the flour on a shallow plate. Pour the oil to a depth of 1 to 1 ½ inches into a deep sauté pan or frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, dredge a handful or two of the smelt in the flour, shaking off the excess, and slide them into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pan. Cook until golden on the bottom, about 1 minute. Turn and cook the other side until golden, about 1 minute longer. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer the smelt to a plate or platter covered with paper towels. Keep warm while you cook the remaining smelt.
Transfer the fish to a warmed platter and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Serve hot with the lemon wedges.
Adapted from The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans.
Bastille Day Feast & Tour at the Historic Wolfskill Ranch
July 14th 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM
4334 Putah Creek Road, Winters, California
A fundraising event for Winters Farm to School
$100 per person
Tickets: go to
www.brownpaperticket.com , Ace Hardware, Winters, or call 530-795-6109
All participants bring their own tableware, including plates, knives, forks, and spoons, as well as cloth napkins. Wine glasses will be provided.
The 1st annual Bastille Day Feast Menu
Fine Local Wines Served throughout the meal
Fresh Grilled Figs with Prosciutto
Peppered Goat Cheese Toasts topped with Chopped Nectarines, Thyme & Olive Oil
Socca (Chickpea Crepes) with Walnut & Black Olive Tapenade
Platters of Fresh Burrata Cheese, with Tomatoes, Extra Virgin Olive Oil & Grilled Bread
Petit Poissons (Fried Smelt) with Lemon Aioli
Lamb Five Ways
Meringues with Summer Fruit & Chantilly