This time of year, I recreate a meal I loved as a child. I make it and remember the people who brought this abundance to our table when I was a small girl growing up in upstate New York.

Stewart and his family lived across the road from us. A wonderful hunter and fisherman, he liked to go “smelting,” and this was the time of year he shared his bounty with us.

I can remember my mother standing at the stove frying up a huge batch of the little silver fishes for our Friday night Catholic fish supper.

After lopping off their heads with kitchen shears and stripping out their innards, my mother rinsed and dried the smelt then dredged them in flour, salt and pepper. The smelts were then transformed from silver to golden in hot oil, laid to rest on a paper towel-lined plate, and served to all of us with cabbage salad and home-grown vegetables.

Oh, the smelt tasted good. I thought my mother was a magic wizard the way she could crisp them up so perfectly. They tasted like running rivers full of snow-melt, and daffodils and rain. I love them still – the sweet white succulent flesh, the wispy bones, and the crisp tails. I crunched them down one after the other, browned and crisp and satisfying.

When smelt season is on here in Maine, I buy my dressed smelts at Hannaford and have a smelt fry once a week, complete with the cabbage salad I make using the wooden salad bowl and chopper that used to belong to my aunt Joanne.

Our family never called the raw chopped vegetable medley “cole slaw.” It has always been “cabbage salad” and we much prefer this light cooked dressing over mayonnaise. Once you try it, you’ll see why.

For dessert, I use another childhood neighbor’s recipe. Aunt Marion wasn’t really my aunt but a willowy elderly lady who lived right next door. She was quite particular, and this Lemon Sponge Pudding was one of her specialties.

The first time I made this dessert, I dubbed it “Lemon Kerfuffle.” I wasn’t sure I was doing it right and had to consult my mother. After separating the eggs, grating the lemon, and folding the egg whites into the batter, the whole concoction looked kind of strange, but after the mixture started baking in its hot water bath, something truly magical happened.

In less than an hour, I had a dish of lemony lusciousness topped with a layer of sponge cake that was almost as light as meringue. You will be tempted to eat the entire thing by yourself so be sure to buy extra lemons just in case.

Fried Smelt

  • 1 lb. smelt, cleaned and patted dry
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Lemon wedges, optional

This isn’t a recipe; just instructions in case you have never tried smelt. Start with fish that are rinsed and dry. Heat oil in a large cast iron skillet or other heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Mix salt and pepper into flour. Dredge smelt with flour and fry in hot oil until flaky and golden, about 2-3 minutes per side, being careful not to over-cook. Drain on paper towels. Serve with lemon wedges. Yield: 3-4 servings

Cabbage Salad

  • 8 cups cabbage, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups carrots, chopped
  • 1 cup celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 large apple, chopped (optional)
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup vinegar
  • 2 tsp. celery seed
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil

Combine vegetables in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, soften gelatin in cold water.
Mix sugar, vinegar, celery seed, salt and pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil then stir in gelatin. Cool until slightly thickened then beat well with a hand mixer. Add oil and beat until combined. Pour over vegetables and stir gently until salad is completely coated with dressing. Stir in apple. Yield: 8 servings

Aunt Marion’s Lemon Sponge Pudding aka Lemon Kerfuffle

  • 3 Tbsp. butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature and separated
  • 3 Tbsp. flour
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice (1 large lemon)
  • 1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • Berries for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 2-quart round casserole, a 9-inch cake pan, or six 6-ounce ramekins.

Use a wooden spoon to combine butter, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. With a mixer, beat in egg yolks. Stir in flour, lemon juice and zest. Add milk and mix thoroughly.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff but still moist. Gently whisk the whites into the lemon batter, just blending until no large lumps of egg white remain. (This is where the mixture looks strange; you’ll want to keep whisking to make it smooth, but don’t do it!)

Spoon the batter into the baking dish(es). Bake in a *water bath until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 30-50 minutes. Let stand for 10 more minutes in its “tub.” Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

*Water bath: Use a pan large enough to accommodate your pudding dish so it doesn’t touch the pan’s sides. Place a metal rack or a folded towel on the bottom of the pan so the dish doesn’t touch the pan’s bottom. Put the baking dish in the pan then pour enough very hot water into the pan so the water level is half-way up the sides of the baking dish. Be careful to not get any water into the pudding!

Yield: 6 servings

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