If smelts are frozen, defrost them. Some people fry and eat smelts whole, especially the smallest ones. Our family prefers smelts butterflied. To clean whole smelts, make a straight cut along the belly with a small knife from under the head to the tail. Turn the smelt over and cut halfway into the fish just behind the head.
Pull the head down and back to remove the innards and tiny backbone. Use your fingers and running water to pull and rinse away any remaining bits. Drop each cleaned fish into a bowl of ice water.
Pour oil into a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350° (or until a small piece of bread dropped in the oil immediately bubbles and rises to the top).
Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a plastic bag.
Cook the smelts in batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Drain the smelts and toss about ten in the bag at a time.
Shake bag to coat smelts with flour. Shake off excess flour from each smelt before dropping it into the oil. Stir to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook until golden brown, turning over once if necessary, 3 to 4 minutes.
Drain the fried smelts on paper towels and serve immediately with the lemon wedges.
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe by Patricia Mercadante, step-grandmother of the author