The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

We Are Sardinistas

August 22nd, 2009 · 4 Comments · Posted in dinner, Recipes, Sustainability

Sardines, fresh off the grill

Sardines, fresh off the grill

There’s a certain seafood store in suburban Maryland that used to source its product by driving to Newark, New Jersey, in the dead of night on Wednesdays and meeting a plane from Portugal. On Thursdays the store was swarmed with clientele looking for fresh sardines, salt cod, octopus and all sorts of other delicacies. Thinking of it always reminded me of the desperate final scene in “Casalanca,” where everything hinges on catching the plane to Lisbon.

Alas, there’s nothing quite so romantic about fish. Still, you had to be impressed that a couple of fishmongers in Bethesda were so devoted to freshness that they would drive through the night four hours each way to get it. They don’t drive to Newark any more. I understand they meet a truck somewhere along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway instead. For me, even 30 minutes in an automobile in traffic from the District of Columbia to buy seafood seemed like a stretch. Still, I always promised myself that one day I would bite the bullet and make the trip to Bethesda to try some of those sardines.

Well, guess who beat me to the punch? Yesterday I stopped by the local Whole Foods to buy a chicken for dinner and there, calling to me from the seafood counter, were fresh sardines from Portugal.

In case you hadn’t heard, sardines have acquired a bit of cache lately because they are low on the food chain, plentiful and full of healthful Omega-3 fatty acids. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program gives sardines from the Pacific an enthusiastic “best choice” rating. The California sardine fishery is making an impressive comeback and garnering quite a following. Unfortunately, Seafood Watch is silent on the question of sardines from Portugal.

You’d think a fish like that would be available all the time. But no, finding sardines at Whole Foods is actually quite an occasion. I had to take some home and see if they were anything like the sardines I remember from my personal travels in Portugal. There, you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting some guy grilling them on the street. Grilled sardines are, in fact, one of the world’s great street food thanks to the Portuguese.

I have a bone to pick with the seafood clerk at Whole Foods who looked me straight in the eye and nodded when I asked, “These sardines are gutted, right?” But now that I think of it, he didn’t seem to speak English very well.

It’s not a big problem. Just slice the belly open with a sharp paring knife and pull the guts out with your forefinger. To grill, make a hot fire with your coals, season the sardines with salt and pepper and lay them on the grate. I had intended to throw some rosemary branches on the coals for flavor, but forgot. There’s not much you can do about it when the grate is covered with fish.

Grilling fresh sardines couldn't be easier

Grilling fresh sardines couldn't be easier

You may have gathered by now that these are not the sardines you find in a can. For one thing, they are much larger, but still small compared to most of the other fish you typically see at the seafood counter. They won’t take long to cook through, so keep a close eye on them. Turn them once and check for doneness. You can poke a little with your paring knife. The fish should acquire a nice little crust. But you don’t want them too close to the coals or they will burn before cooking through.

Transfer the cooked sardines to a platter and dress with a fine olive oil infused with sauteed garlic. I like them presented on a platter with a fresh garden salad and sliced tomatoes garnished with a chiffonade of basil. The sardines you will simply pick apart with your knife and fork, but be careful. This is an operation that calls for meticulous care and patience, as the sardines are full of tiny little bones you’ll want to remove. Separating the flesh from the bones is part of the experience of savoring sardines.

I served this with a cold bottle of white Burgundy. But maybe a wine from Portugal would be even more appropriate. I can’t think of a more satisfying meal for a summer’s evening on the deck.

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  • fastweedpuller

    We used to go to Newark for their Portuguese restaurants. There’s nothing like a tradition grown up around some particular foodstuff, like fish. Looks like a great find, Ed.

    I adore sardines, even the canned stuff. Canned ones are perhaps a bit of a stretch for many people but I think they’re great, and high in calcium too (because of course you eat the bones ).

  • Ed Bruske

    El, I’m with you. I eat sardines out of the can whenever the mood strikes. I usually keep quite a stash of different varieties in the pantry. I like the ones smothered in tomato sauce or mustard. I’ve always wanted to spend some time in Newark precisely to dive into the Portuguese food. Who knew?

  • jon w

    I buy them frozen whole, big bags for a few bucks. but even at 6″ long, the bones and heads are no problem. my 3-year-old ate 5 for breakfast.

  • Ed Bruske

    Five for breakfast? Sounds like the breakfast of champions.