I don’t know what it is about small fish that is so appealing to me.
I remember being in Italy as a child, and looking on in horror as my parents dug into platefuls of tiny fried fish, uncleaned and with heads intact! (Why this was more objectionable to my 11-year-old sensibilities than the squid tentacles I was gobbling with wild abandon that same trip I’ll never know.) Fast forward a quarter century of so, and I can’t get enough of the small fry.
I buy teeny, tiny “ice fish” — no longer than a nickel and pale white — at the Japanese market, coat them in a light tempura batter and make fish fries. I buy smelt or other little fish, and recreate the fritto misto that traumatized me as a child in Italy. I purchase silvery sardines to pickle or throw on the grill. I can’t remember when it all changed, perhaps it was the climbing-a-mountain/crossing-a-new-frontier aspect it. But whenever and however, I became a devotee of diminutive dabs.
I have memories from even earlier in my childhood of grunion runs — more the mythology of the event than the actual activity. (I think I may have gone once, although I likely wouldn’t have made it to the beach and stayed behind in the car sleeping instead.) On certain nights, our local beaches were flooded with spawning grunion — millions of them. You would chase them down, grab the slippery little suckers, and if you could, toss them in a bucket. “What would you do with them then?” the childhood me asked with apprehension.
“Eat them!” would be the reply. And in my mind, I gagged as I imagined a small live fish wriggling in my mouth.
Besides the smallest fish that fry up so exquisitely are the slightly larger fish, such as one of my favorites — the sardine. Among one of the world’s most sustainable of seafood, you can feel guilt-free joy as you shove dozens of the little guys down your gullet. Sardines have long gotten a bad rap in the U.S., the result of so many forgettable encounters with morbid little cans of long-dead silvery fish still sporting their guts and bones. But anyone who has eaten them in a café on the Italian Riviera or in a taverna on a Greek isle will tell you they are one of the best fish.
In addition to one of my most beloved preparations, the Roman pickled dish, pesciolini in scapece, I like them simply cooked on a hot grill, then drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. Or, jazz them up with an Italian salsa of orange and fennel and serve with proseco on a warm night to those new friends you’ve been wanting to impress.
I have a confession to make. I’m not quite as intrepid as I may appear — unless they’re the smallest of fish (i.e. the “ice fish”), I do actually clean them and remove their heads. I don’t like my dinner looking at me. For those of you not familiar with this particular pleasure and uncertain where to start, here’s a brief, somewhat gruesome video. The rest of you, just move on to the recipes:
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Fritto di mare fried whitefish
serves 4-6 as an appetizer
1 lb. smelt or other small whitefish
1 cup flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
3/4 cup ice water
2 cups canola or other light oil
flaky sea salt
If you like your little fried fish with heads, leave them on. If not, twist off, pulling the intestines out with the head. Make a slit where the stomach is. Rinse to remove any remaining innards, and continue until you’ve cleaned all the fish.
Mix together the flour and corn starch. Remove half the mixture to a plate, and leave the other half in a bowl. Mix the ice water into the bowl half until smooth. (Do not overmix.)
In a wok or shallow saucepan, heat your oil over medium high heat until a drop of the batter mixture sizzles and floats.
A few at a time, dredge the smelt in the flour on the plate, then dip into the batter mixture and drop immediately into the oil. Use tongs to move the fish so they don’t stick together. Cook for 1-2 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels, and place in an oven preheated to 180 degrees. Continue this way until all the little fish are cooked.
Serve on a large plate, squeezed with lemon juice and sprinkled with salt.
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Grilled sardines with fennel and orange
1 bulb fennel, shaved
1 orange, peeled and cut into wedges with skin removed
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
flaky sea salt & pepper
Remove the heads from the sardines and clean guts. (See video above.) If there are scales on the fish, rinse under running water and remove scales by running your finger lengthwise across the fish, from tail toward gills, against the scales. (They will come out easily.)
Place cleaned sardines on a plate to drain. Meanwhile, place shaved fennel in a bowl of water to remove any sand or grit. Drain thoroughly, turning in a salad spinner or shaking inside a few paper towels. In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, orange juice and vinegar to create an emulsion. Toss in fennel and orange segments, and set aside to let flavors meld.
Heat your grill to high. Brush sardines with a little olive oil and place on grill. Cook about two minutes on each side, until cooked and beginning to char at the edges and ribs. Remove to a platter. (Note: you can serve on the platter, or place portions on individual plates.)
Spoon the fennel orange salsa over the fish, drizzling with any remaining sauce. Sprinkle flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper over the top. Serve with thick grilled slices of ciabatta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with flaky sea salt.