Taking the bait – how to cook whitebait
Frying fish, said Elizabeth David, is something best left to restaurants. However, whitebait (in the UK, the small fry of herring and sprats, according to Jane Grigson), should you be able to get hold of some, can easily and successfully be cooked at home. How do you deal with them?
The first thing (once de-frosted, if bought frozen) is to rinse them in cold water, and turn them over in the process, as you may find bits of seaweed here and there, particularly if they are fresh. Then either leave them to drain, or pat them dry with a clean tea-towel. Coat lightly and evenly with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Chop some parsley.
Heat some olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan or skillet. You do not need lots of oil, just enough (about a millimetre in depth all over) to avoid it all being absorbed by the whitebait.
Once the oil is hot enough to be almost smoking, carefully (and it may well spit from residual water) put the whitebait in the pan so the fish are all separate, and fry quickly (around 2–3 minutes) until browned, turning them over once in the process (very delicately as they become fragile and break up very easily). Once they look done – as in the picture below – they need to be served straight to warmed plates, parsley-adorned, and eaten immediately: being small and individual, they cool very quickly.
Serve with either lemon juice or white-wine or cider vinegar.