Recently, my friend Charley Soares, who is one of the best storytellers I know, recounted a tale of feasting on fried Atlantic silversides. Charley explained in great detail how they would drive a truck down a boat ramp at night, put the high beams on, and then toss out a handful of chum. After waiting a few minutes, two men would deploy a seine net, slap the water with their hands to drive the fish into the middle of the net, and scoop up silversides (sometimes referred to as spearing) by the thousands.
Most were used for chum, but the largest specimens were carefully set aside and packed on ice, destined for the deep fryer. Before eating them, the men cleaned them by removing the heads and squeezing out the guts. What remained was taken to the kitchen of St. John’s Restaurant, a Portuguese institution in New Bedford. The chef dipped the silversides in a batter (the same one they used for clam cakes) and deep fried them until golden brown.
“The oil was so hot, it melted all the little bones, which added flavor. They brought out a heaping plate, we dipped them in malt vinegar, we had ice-cold beer, and we ate every last crumb. Delicious!”
Charley went on to inform me that the tastiest Atlantic silversides are those caught in late June when the females are packed with roe. I’ve had several other “old-timers” tell me tales of dining on silversides back in the day. My father-in-law, Don DeLuca, used to eat them as a child growing up in Rhode Island. His father, a first-generation Italian immigrant, was particularly fond of silversides.
“We used to fry them up like smelt. We’d smother them in ketchup; they tasted just like French fries.”
It seems like just about every seaside culture around the globe has some sort of fried minnow on the menu. The Spaniards are enthralled with sardines, the Japanese love their Shishamo, and in England, fried whitebait is considered a delicacy. But, for whatever reason, deep-fried baitfish have never caught on here in America.
A few nights ago, while surfcasting at one of my old haunts that I haven’t fished in years, I discovered the motherlode of Atlantic silversides. The fishing was awful, but upon leaving, I lit up the water with my flashlight to see if there was any bait around.
The location has two jetties, about 100 feet apart, that extend out and then angle inward, creating a lagoon in the middle that acts like a natural fish weir. It’s a magnet for baitfish, and stripers often stack up around the tips of the jetties, especially on a dropping tide.
When I turned on my flashlight, the water erupted, as if an invisible monsoon had instantly descended upon the lagoon. Thousands of silversides took to the air, jumping out of the water, confused by the sudden appearance of light. They were packed into the cove like sardines. Hmm…. I pondered the situation. The fishing was lousy. With no size limit, and no bag limit, perhaps I should be targeting the bait?
The next day, I borrowed an 8-foot Frabill seine net from a friend. But try as I might, I couldn’t persuade any of my fishing buddies to help me capitalize on the silverside blitz. So, that night, after serving my wife a few cocktails, I made a convincing sales pitch and miraculously convinced her to partake in the plunder.
I must admit I was a bit rusty working a seine net because I hadn’t handled one since I was a kid. Our first two attempts hauled in more jellyfish than silversides, but then I noticed a tidal pool along the edge of the east jetty. It was packed with bait, which had no escape route. We refined our technique (though I’ve been instructed to write that it was my wife’s bright idea to work the net faster). We made one sweep and scored about 200 of them, which was more than enough to conduct a few experiments.
I’m not going to lie to you. Cleaning Atlantic silversides was a tedious affair. That night, I spent about an hour at the kitchen sink using a pair of tiny fly-tying scissors to gut my catch. (Some people have told me silversides can be eaten whole, but I am not particularly fond of eating guts, or even internal organs for that matter, so I took the extra time to gut them.) They were so small, most under 3 inches, so I opted to leave the heads on since I’ve been told they provide some extra crunch.
The following night, I fried up a bunch using the following recipe.
Fries With Eyes
- 3 to 4 dozen Atlantic silversides, cleaned
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- Salt & pepper
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Canola oil for frying
- Lime (or lemon) wedges
- Ketchup (or malt vinegar) for dipping
Place the silversides in a colander and rinse under cold water. Give them a good dusting of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Toss them around to make sure they are evenly coated.
Place the flour, cornstarch, and sugar in a large zip-close bag. Toss in the silversides and give it a vigorous shake to coat them well. Place the bag in the refrigerator and let them rest for at least a half hour, shaking the bag occasionally. (Allowing them to rest in the flour mixture helps the coating stick to the fish when frying.)
Fire up an electric deep fryer and set the temperature to 365 degrees. When the oil comes to temperature, add the silversides in small batches, about a handful at a time. Fry until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. (When the bubbling subsides, they are done.) Remove and let rest on a wire drying rack.
Serve the fish with a wedge of lemon (or lime) and ketchup (or malt vinegar.)
I must admit, I was a bit hesitant to take the first bite. I grabbed one by the tail, smothered it in ketchup, and sent it down the hatch, head, eyeballs, tail, and all. It was crispy, salty, light, and airy, not fishy whatsoever. Hmmm, I thought. Not bad. I went back for another, this time skipping the ketchup to get a better feel for the true taste. I was pleasantly surprised; it was actually pretty darn good. I wished I had cooked more. My wife agreed.
If you ate one blindfolded, you would swear you were eating a really good French fry. I will be frying these little buggers again! They were similar to fried smelt, but milder (and better), and their smaller size made them come out super-crispy.
The following day, I still had a handful of cleaned Atlantic silversides left over. I was very tempted to fry them up for lunch, but then I got another idea. I recalled a trip to Barcelona, Spain, when I was 15 years old. The seafood was amazing, and one dish I vividly remember was an appetizer of boquerones, or white sardines, which were simply served atop a slice of freshly baked bread and drizzled with olive oil.
Sardines vs. Anchovies: What’s the Difference?
Whether it’s due to their small size or the fact that they are both sold in tin cans positioned next to each other in grocery stores, sardines and anchovies are often confused with one another.
Sardines, sometimes referred to as pilchards, are small, oily fish in the Clupeidae family, which also includes herring. There are 18 different species, and they can grow up to 8 inches.
Anchovies are also small, oily fish. There are more than 140 species of anchovies, all of which are members of the Engraulidae family, and most are smaller than sardines.
Sardines have white flesh, while anchovies have darker, reddish-grey flesh. Sardines have a less intense flavor than anchovies, which have a distinct and pungent, umami-rich flavor. Anchovies are cured in salt, sometimes for as long as 3 months. Sardines are also briefly cured in salt, and then either cooked with heat, or by acids in citrus or vinegar. While anchovies are a popular pizza topping, putting sardines on a pie is a culinary no-no.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of sardines, or any fish packed into a can for that matter, but the ones I had in Spain were remarkable. I decided to give it a try.
Atlantic Silverside Boquerones
- 1 dozen large silversides, cleaned, heads removed
- 1/2 cup Kosher salt
- Juice from half a lemon
- 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 large clove garlic, diced
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
- 1 tablespoon hot pepper, diced (optional)
Place a thin layer of salt in the bottom of a container. Layer on some silversides, then add more salt until they are completely covered. Add more layers of fish and then more salt as needed. Refrigerate, covered, for 24 hours, which will draw out a lot of moisture.
Remove the fish to a colander and rinse well. Wash out the container and put the cleaned fish back in. Add vinegar and orange juice until all the fish are completely submerged. Let it soak in the fridge for 8 hours.
Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan on medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the parsley.
Remove the sardines from the vinegar mixture and stack them into a small jar. Cover the fish with the hot oil, which will have enough residual heat to cook the fish through. Refrigerate for another 12 hours, and they are ready to serve.
I should note that some traditional recipes skip the cooking process and rely on the vinegar to “cook” the fish. I should also note that vinegar has been proven to not be effective for killing parasites, and silversides, being an inshore fish, are likely candidates for hosting anisakis worms. These little devils originate in seals and can bore holes through your intestinal walls. They are bad news, and I fear them; thus I don’t consume any raw fish from inshore waters. (Freezing fish is another way to kill parasites.)
Anyway, serve your boquerones atop small slices of fresh, toasted bread. Drizzle them with good olive oil, give them a crack of black pepper, and garnish with fresh herbs.
These were actually a lot better than I expected, although I must admit I grilled the fresh bread with a bit of bacon fat, which really put it over the top. The “sardines” were not fishy at all. They absorbed a lot of flavor from the garlic and vinegar, had a bright, refreshing flavor, and the bones weren’t noticeable at all. Curing them was a lengthy process, but if you are a sardine lover, you owe it to yourself to give these a try.
Send me your recipes! If you have a recipe that features local seafood, I’d love to hear about it. Contact me at: email@example.com, or via Instagram @livingoffthelandandsea.
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