Flash in the Pan 

Sardines are back

Given the illegality of selling wild game, only hunters and their lucky friends get to munch the many tasty beasts that roam the boondocks. So a seafood meal is one of the few opportunities most Americans will ever have to eat a wild animal, which is like walking around on your bare feet: It's exposure to an ecosystem, and a direct connection with the planet. Eating wild fish is like a swim in the ocean, except the ocean swims inside you.

Unfortunately, wild seafood is wrought with environmental, ethical, economic, and health implications. Many fish stocks are dwindling. And prices, not surprisingly, are climbing. Certain fishing methods are damaging underwater ecosystems and creating bycatch, whereby the wrong fish are caught and all too often killed. Big carnivorous fish like tuna and swordfish are known to accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals from the many fish, large and small, in their diets.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain, the lowly sardine poses a solution to each of these problems. And all we have to do is eat him.

"Sardine" is a general term for the young of dozens of species of the clupeid family of fish. Sardines from the North American East Coast are actually small herrings. The most-prized sardines are the brisling species of the North and Baltic seas. Sardina pilchardus, from the Mediterranean, are named after the island Sardinia where the small fish were once particularly abundant. The Pacific sardine fishery was the largest U.S. fishery from the 1920s to the 1940s, when it collapsed. Now, Pacific sardine stocks are stronger than they've been in decades, and appear to be on the increase. (Fossil evidence indicates that sardine populations ride a regular boom-and-bust cycle, though overfishing is thought to have expedited the 1940s bust.)

For most Americans, sardines are practically synonymous with "in a can," but those oily little fish can rise to a whole new level when prepared fresh. Thanks to the current boom, fresh sardines can be had at two bucks a pound in many stores. But while popular in Europe, freshies remain a niche market in the U.S., and most Pacific sardines are ground into food for farmed fish. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of sardine to make a pound of farmed salmon. Those penned-up, orange-dyed hog fish eat better than we do.

Sardines are one of the healthiest fish in the sea. They feed on photosynthetic plankton, so they don't accumulate heavy metals as carnivorous fish do. Sardines are rich in omega-3 oils, protein, good cholesterol, selenium, and—if you eat the soft bones—calcium and fluoride.

Cooking with sardines can be tricky, due to their fishy smell. A recent batch that I marinated and then pan-fried resulted in a fishy steam, which carried a very strong aroma throughout the house. Days later, visitors were still asking if I'd just had fish for dinner.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

The first step in cooking sardines is to clean them. If the scales are still present, remove them gently with a knife. Be careful when gutting sardines, as they can be extremely delicate. As with most fish, the heads are edible, but if you're willing to forgo that delicacy you can simply pull the heads off and the guts will come out behind them. To make that job slightly easier with strong-boned sardines, cut the spine below the head. Or leave the spine attached and pull the head forward and down toward the tail, and you can get the spine to come out too, leaving behind two beautiful flat sardine filets held together by the skin. Rinse thoroughly.

If you want to marinate sardines, simple is better, like lemon, olive oil, and parsley. And I highly recommend grilling them outdoors afterwards, rather than cooking them inside the house. Grilled sardines are magnificent, and it keeps the fishy flavors out of your curtains.

In many Mediterranean countries fresh sardines are commonly breaded and deep-fried, a technique that's both tasty and fool-proof. Sardines cooked this way don't even stink up the house—unless you splatter grease everywhere.

Sprinkle your cleaned sardines with salt and pepper, then roll them in flour. Heat an inch or so of olive oil on low in a pan, and when a drop of water draws a splattering response, add the fish. Three minutes per side should do it, although you can cook them longer if you want a browner crisp (at the expense of moist flesh). Fried sardines are typically served with lemon wedges and little else, but the alternatives are many.

Sardine escabeche consists of fried sardines that are then pickled in vinegar. The dish spread from Spain and Portugal to their colonies, resulting in some interesting permutations. Mexican escabeche refers to pickled jalapenos and carrots. In the Brazilian peixe escabeche, fish is fried crispy and then added to a coconut soup. In many places, "escabeche" simply means "marinade."

Along those lines, I've had good success mixing fried sardines with Thai green curry and stuffing them between pieces of bread with pickles and other fixings for a po-boy sandwich. After gorging myself on my last batch of fried sardines, I still had a few left over. I stuck them in a jar of pickled eggs that I had going in the fridge. A few days later, the dilly vinaigrette had permeated the formerly crispy and still oily fish for a phenomenal escabeche. Although the crisp was gone, the fried flavor remained, and perfectly matched the vinegar brine from the egg jar.

The many possibilities presented by fresh sardines don't mean you should avoid them in cans. And if you do, you might want to go for the brisling varieties from cold, northern waters, and see if you notice their supposed superiority.

But when going fresh, you can hardly get more local for seafood than California. And when you buy American sardines you can be sure efforts were made to release the bycatch alive, according to Seafood Watch, which ranks sardines a "Best Choice" among seafood options.

The Pacific sardine season runs January through August. Look for bright, sturdy, clean fish with clear eyes. Then take them home and rip off their heads.

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