Years ago a friend of mine had heard of a small fish that runs in the Spring up the rivers and along the shorelines of Lake Superior. The fish were smelt and he had heard stories of people filling the beds of pick-up trucks with these small wonderful treats. For several years we went to the North Shore and tried to catch smelt and never had any success. Our most fruitful year we actually managed to catch 14 smelt and there were 4 of us trying. It took us a while to figure out that you can't plan a trip to go catch smelt you have to go when the smelt start running. With busy schedules that isn't always easy to do.
This year I ran into the same problem, I was going to head up to Duluth when they started running but life got in the way. I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends who were able to make it up and they did really well filling a couple of 5 gallon buckets with these little fish. They had called and asked if I wanted some and of course I took them up on it. I have only cooked smelt once and there were only 14 of them so I wasn't really able to try a bunch of different recipes. I just sauteed them in butter and garlic and they were good but not great. My only other experience with smelt has been eating them at the State Fair and once at a VFW smelt dinner where they were battered and fried. I was really looking forward to cooking them myself to see if I could come up with something a little more interesting.
Pretty much every recipe I read suggested I should fry the smelt. Because you are eating the whole fish, frying them helps soften the bones so they are edible. I found a Greek recipe That looked pretty good and didn't call for a heavy batter, just a light dusting in flour before frying them. They turned out amazing and the fish were cooked perfectly. They had just enough of a crunch on the outside and the bones on the inside were completely unnoticeable. They were sweet and very fresh tasting, easily one of the best fish meals I have had.
I was cooking them in a Greek style so I figured I should have some tzatziki to go with them. There is a little Lebanese place near my house called Byblo's and they have some of the best food around. I went in to buy some Tzatziki and was talking to the owner and he told me about another sauce they have called Toum, which is a garlic and olive oil mixture. He let me sample some and it was amazing, I ended up taking home a tub of it as well. The owner told me that they like to mix the Toum with some lemon juice and more olive oil to thin it out and make a dipping sauce so that is what I did. I mixed equal parts Toum, lemon juice and olive oil and seasoned it with some salt and pepper to make a dressing for the fried smelt on the bed of arugula, it was incredible.
With the rest of the smelt I fried some fennel and onions and ate them with the tzatziki and some pitas. If this is how good smelt can be I now understand why someone would fill the back of a pick up with them.