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Stalking Whitebait

January 11, 2010

November 19, 2008

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Hours earlier the lunch break crowd claimed parking spots with front row views of Cape Cod Bay, idling to listen to talk radio or unwrapping Wendy’s burgers in solitary silence. Someone invariably tossed chunks of a hamburger bun out the window to the gulls.

Now a faint perfume of fuel and French fries lingers on the damp air, but the landing is nearly deserted. As we pull the ride down the ramp a young guy in a baseball hat wanders over pulling on a cigarette. He eyes the rods on the roof. “Lookin’ for bass?” Hardly.

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Silversides are the smelt of the south, south of Maine, that is. They show up around mid-summer, and they are sleek, hydrodynamic fish, nearly translucent.

Headlights glaze the water. Little slivers of silver flash, leaping out of the dark water, like rain in reverse. The silversides. The prey du soir. In about 20 minutes they will lay fried crisp and golden, as though captured mid-leap, across newspapers spread on the table. Cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, lemon or lime – take your pick; every bite’s better than the last.

Let’s make one thing clear; silversides are not peanut bunker, nor are they herring fry or chubs. Silversides are the smelt of the south, south of Maine, that is. Showing up around mid-summer, they are sleek, hydrodynamic fish and are nearly translucent, save for a highly reflective strip of silver that runs from behind the gill to the tail and gives the fish its name. They also have silver eyes, but somehow ‘silvereyes’ doesn’t cut it. They are best harvested from 2 to 4 inches, but longer specimens can be found. Like many fish, they seem to school with members of the same ‘class’, all being a similar size. And school they do, in pods that bring to mind the tight structure of barracuda groups, flinching as though with a single brain to a cormorant’s appearance or the introduction of a net.

Though their mild flavor and wide, if seasonal, availability has not engendered culinary appreciation on this peninsula, they are well known abroad. They can be found at French markets as ‘petite friture,’ or enjoyed over pints in the U.K. as ‘whitebait.’ They represent a guilty pleasure enjoyed throughout Europe, the Middle East and countless other areas that find themselves lucky enough to exist by the sea. Tiny fish, brined, fermented, fried or smoked, are a welcomed addition to any tapas or mezze or fish and chips platter and take their place easily beside more common Cape Cod offerings of fried shrimp, scallops, clams and squid.

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Fish less than 3 inches long they can be respectably fried whole. Bigger fish could, if the chef or guests are squeamish, be gutted, but it is tedious and unnecessary.

Gathering the seafood is fairly simple. Night makes it easy to find and catch them, because they respond to the sudden appearance of light with acrobatics. Drive down a saltwater landing ramp with headlights on. If the water explodes with jumping silver baitfish, grab a seine net and head in with waders on. It is best to surround them from deeper water and walk the seine in to the shallows to trap them and scoop them up. Lay the seine on the ramp and pick the fish out of the net, depositing them into a bucket. Unless you really like to batter fish that are still leaping, don’t bother adding water to the bucket. If you don’t have a seine, but plenty of time, try netting them with a bait net on a pole.

Fish less than 3 inches long can be respectably fried whole. Bigger fish could, if the chef or guests are squeamish, be gutted, but it is tedious and unnecessary. The larger the fish are, the more likely it is that you may find yourself eating up to the head and no further. Little fish should be enjoyed whole. Silversides require only a dip in beaten egg followed by a quick dredge in flour and a plunge into hot peanut or vegetable oil. Drain them on newsprint or paper towel and salt to taste. They will be gone within the next few weeks as water temperatures drop.

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