Some popular food fish are large enough to furnish dozens -- or even hundreds -- of meal-sized portions, while others are so small, you'd need several for each diner. Sprats fall into the latter category, a sort of very small sardine that's typically prepared in quantity. The fish are so tiny and their bones so delicate that they're usually prepared simply and eaten whole.
The simplest method for cooking sprats is to preheat a heavy skillet -- ideally cast iron -- until it's very hot. Rinse the tiny fish and pat them dry, and then drop them a few at a time into the hot skillet. After about 1 minute, the skin on the underside will begin to puff and blister from the pan's searing heat. Flip the sprats and cook for about the same length of time on the other side, and then set them aside to keep warm while you cook the rest. The tiny fish are oily enough in their own right that the pan requires none.
Grilled sprats are a cherished tradition in the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries, just as grilled sardines are in the Mediterranean. If you have a mesh cover for your grill or a mesh grill basket, you can simply arrange the fish directly on the grill. Otherwise, it's best to combine several on a skewer. This reduces the risk of losing a tiny, tasty morsel through the grill to the coals. Brush the sprats lightly with oil or -- if you wish -- an oil-based marinade, and then grill them for 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
The quickest cooking method for sprats is deep-frying. Like other fish, a temperature of 355 to 360 degrees Fahrenheit is just about right. Season the sprats liberally with salt and pepper, dredge them in flour and slide them gently into the hot fat. They'll only need about 1 minute of frying time, and then a few moments to drain on paper towels or brown paper. Devour them as soon as they're cool enough to handle comfortably.
The Finer Points
If you're not catching your own sprats, look for specimens that have bright, unclouded eyes and a clean smell. You'll usually need six or more per person, so buy in quantity. Some cooks like to remove the digestive tract before cooking, either by trimming off the belly or by cutting the throat and squeezing it out the opening. Fried and grilled sprats are tasty with just a light sprinkling of salt, but benefit from a splash of lemon juice or good vinegar to counter the richness of the tiny fish. A tomato-based relish or chutney, or strongly garlicy aioli, is also an excellent complement.
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