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Any tips on making bony fish more palatable?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created January 18, 2012 at 1:27 AM

Since I'm doing an autoimmune diet for now, I've been experimenting with some different foods to keep it interesting. Today I made smelts. I had never had them before but I thought - they have good fats, are low on the food chain, and on sale to boot. And supposedly the bones are a good source of calcium.

The most common way of cooking them is breaded and fried, but since that was a no-go, I sauteed them in coconut oil with shallots and capers. The end result was delicious, but even though I removed the spines (they had the heads and guts removed at the store), both the boyfriend and I had a heck of a time with the residual soft bones in the fish. We both chewed and chewed and never felt like they were fully macerated. I still feel like I have one stuck in my throat (probably paranoia). Talk about a low-reward food. Neither of us went back for seconds.

The fish varied in size, but probably averaged about 4 inches in length. I don't think there is any way those bones could be removed before or after cooking. So my question is, is there a way to cook small fish to make the bones softer? Boyfriend suggested using my pressure cooker, but I assumed that would result in fish-flavored mush. Is braising and option? Or is the answer that we just have to suck it up?

Ebb10603524dd22621c1155dd7ddf106

(19150)

on January 18, 2012
at 04:41 AM

The core of the trick is to pull the spine out back to front -- it'll take most if not all of the small bones with it. Good luck!

F0e558010a2ecb31fa37b7c491596b8e

(3850)

on January 18, 2012
at 04:04 AM

I pulled the spines out after cooking. I didn't try before, but maybe that would have helped. And it certainly looks like I did not cook them hot enough.

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Ebb10603524dd22621c1155dd7ddf106

(19150)

on January 18, 2012
at 03:16 AM

Ahh, smelts. One of my favorite fish.

I'm full-blooded Italian, and I grew up eating smelts breaded & deep-fried, especially around the holidays. The ones we ate then were always small, and the frying rendered the bones unnoticeable and soft. Lately, though, I find that I'm seeing larger smelts in stores. The term "smelt" does apply to a a number of different fish, so it's likely the available type are simply larger.

Now, here's the thing: you have to get your cooking time and temperature right to get the bones soft enough. For a deep fry, or oil on skillet fry, you want to get your oil up to around 350-375 degrees F. You probably need about 3 to 5 minutes (for the largest type). Coconut oil or butter would work well for this type of frying.

You mentioned that you were able to remove the spines. Fish like smelts and sardines have incredibly small pin bones (in fact, I'm not sure they're even called pin bones at that size) and are quite malleable, even before being cooked. I'm the type of person that will readily eat bones that size, including the spine, but here's a trick I discovered to make tiny double filets of smelt or sardine, or when I don't want crunchy pieces (e.g. torn up smelt or sardine in a salad).

Assuming the fish is gutted, and head removed, before cooking run your finger down past the point were the gutting ends toward the end of the fish, opening the fish up somewhat more. Dig up and grab the spine as far back as you can, then pull evenly, but slowly and firmly, towards the front of the fish. The spine and all/most of the tiny bones should come out readily. You can also do this after cooking, depending on what works for your meal.

I hope this info helps.

P.S. There's and amazing annual smelt related bit of Americana up in Lewiston, NY, every May - the "Lewiston Smelt Festival" - http://www.niagarariverregion.com/visitors/festivals/smelt.shtml . If you ever cheat paleo, foodie adventures like this are a way to really enjoy it. Regardless, amazing free, deep-fried, breaded smelt. You can go down to the water, and see tons of live ones swimming about as well. I had a great time last year with my fiance. Very low key event. Town is charming, and right on the border with Canada.

F0e558010a2ecb31fa37b7c491596b8e

(3850)

on January 18, 2012
at 04:04 AM

I pulled the spines out after cooking. I didn't try before, but maybe that would have helped. And it certainly looks like I did not cook them hot enough.

Ebb10603524dd22621c1155dd7ddf106

(19150)

on January 18, 2012
at 04:41 AM

The core of the trick is to pull the spine out back to front -- it'll take most if not all of the small bones with it. Good luck!

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