Fried smelt with malagueta chile aioli
Fried smelt with malagueta chile aioli Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: John Manion (La Sirena Clandestina)

The Challenger: Michael Shrader (Urban Union)

The Ingredient: Smelt

“I think that Mike gave me a cream puff,” John Manion said of Michael Shrader’s chosen ingredient. He’d expected something difficult, like fish eyeballs or ostrich eggs (both previous Key Ingredient challenges), and thought that smelt was pretty easy by comparison. He considered doing something weird with the tiny fish, but “as much as I tried, the best way to cook smelt is to fry them,” he said.

Manion has fond memories from his college years of going down to the docks in Milwaukee after a long night of drinking, just as the smelt were being brought in. “You go down to the pier, people are drinking beer, frying them up,” he said. “Right before dawn. It was late; we were drunk.”

Rainbow smelt, introduced to the Great Lakes in the early 1900s as food for salmon, flourished for years, but a combination of factors (experts suspect overfishing and an increase in the population of natural predators like trout) diminished their numbers in the 1980s. The abundant harvests of 30 or 40 years ago are no more, though smelt aren’t exactly rare—they’re still fished in Lake Michigan.

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Manion compared smelt to “tiny little perch. They’ve got that fresh lake flavor, and I think that when you fry them very quickly, it seals in that flavor. I don’t think you want to get away from that too much.”

Some of his best food memories from growing up in Brazil, he said, are of going to a palm-thatched shack with a kettle of boiling oil and eating fish just out of the ocean with nothing more than sauce and a squeeze of lime. He thought that smelt needed the same type of simple approach. “There’s no ice cream course, no smelt cookies . . . no gelees or agar-agar. This is straight-up food.”

The forthcoming La Sirena Clandestina was still under construction the day Manion showed us how to make fried smelt with chile aioli. “I’m going to hope that fryer works, because this is day one of the kitchen,” he commented. He dredged the smelt in yuca starch, which he thought would give it some nuttiness and a little crunch, and dropped them in the fryer—which did, in fact, work. Manion said he takes the fish out just before they stop bubbling, when they’re done but still moist. “If it’s stopped bubbling, you fucked up. You’ve got some dry-ass fish,” he said.

Chef John Manion of La Sirena ClandestinaCredit: Julia Thiel

The aioli, made with malagueta peppers—a small, hot chile common in Brazil (also called piri piri)—lent the dish a Latin touch accentuated by a garnish of peanuts, serrano, green onion, and cilantro. “This is a good example of the kind of food that I want to do,” Manion said. “This could get on the menu. It’s local fish, garnished with local ingredients, but this tastes like Brazil to me. It tastes like the beach.”

Who’s next:

Matt Troost of Three Aces, working with dende oil, which is made from palm fruit. “I figured I wanted to fuck with Matt a little bit,” Manion said. “I hope he uses his Google machine, because it’s got a pretty low smoke point. It’s tough to cook with, but it’s way too acrid to actually finish stuff with.”

Fried smelt with malagueta chile aioli

2 pounds smelt, cleaned (You can remove the backbone with your fingers if you like, it’s a matter of personal taste. To me the backbone is pure crunchy goodness.)

1 cup toasted cassava flour (used for farofa)

Kosher salt

Canola or vegetable oil for frying

Preheat oil to 350. Pat the fish dry, season with salt and dredge in cassava flour. Shake off excess flour and fry about four and a half minutes (until fish are floating and golden brown). Season with salt and reserve on paper towel.

For the aioli:

2 garlic cloves, smashed

8 malagueta peppers (Brazilian peppers also called piri piri; they come bottled pickled in vinegar)

Zest of one lime

1 t Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup malagueta vinegar

1 cup canola or other neutral oil

Salt to taste

Place the garlic, egg yolk and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Turn that puppy on and add the vinegar then the oil drop by drop until emulsified. Add the rest of the ingredients and taste for salt. Congrats, you made delicious aioli!

Garnish with ground peanuts and cashews, green onions, and cilantro.