Little Silver Fishies

Sardines are not a fence sitter’s fish. Like anchovies, people tend to either love them or hate them. But in the hater’s camp, I usually find folks who have only encountered small tins of the tightly packed, long-deceased fish. And I aim to convert them with the revelation that is a fresh sardine.

Most people have never seen a fresh sardine, with its sleek profile and pearlescent silver and blue skin. A favorite food of large baleen whales, sardines are one of the most abundant fish in the sea, swimming in massive shoals numbering in the millions. Check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” list of best and worst seafood choices in terms of sustainability, and there’s sardines on the “Best Choices” side. I don’t know if there is a sardine “season,” per se. But I only see them sporadically at certain times of year in my favorite Japanese market. And when they’re there, I buy them.

An oily, insistent fish, they stand up well to bold preparations and acidic sauces. I like to crust them in cornmeal, cook them in olive oil and serve them with a mustard sauce. And few things compare to crisping them up whole on a hot grill and drizzling with lemon juice and a fruity olive oil. But my favorite preparation is pesciolini in scapece — “small fish in vinegar”.

I first encountered this traditional Roman dish in a Mario Batali cookbook, and adapted it to my tastes (using sweet seasoned rice vinegar and white balsamic, for example, in place of white wine vinegar). Similar in theme to a Venetian dish I love, pesce in saor — salt cod in tomatoes, pine nuts, vinegar and raisins — it perfectly balances acidity, sweetness, the richness of the fish and the sharpness of the garlic, the floral notes of the mint with the grassiness of the extra virgin olive oil. Get off the fence, friends, and be bold in your fishness.

*   *   *

Pesciolini in scapece
serves 8 as an appetizer, or store and eat as you like

10-12 fresh whole sardines
1 cup flour
1/2 cup olive oil, plus 1/4 cup
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/4 cup mint leaves

Fillet the sardines: with a sharp knife, cut in just behind the gills, and slice lengthwise along the spine to the tail. Flip over and repeat on the second side. When all sardines have been filleted, discard the remainder of the fish, and rinse fillets under cold running water, brushing off scales and visible bones (don’t worry about tiny bones).

Drain fillets well. Dredge with flour, shaking off excess. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a pan over medium heat, and working in two batches, fry the fillets about 4-5 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Add more olive oil if necessary before cooking second batch.

While the fillets are cooking, heat the two vinegars in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Just before the boiling point, turn off heat and add smashed garlic cloves — breaking into pieces as you do — and mint leaves.

When all the sardines have been cooked, layer them in a small casserole or other ceramic or glass dish. Pour the vinegar and aromatics over the fish, drizzle with 1/4 cup olive oil, cover and refrigerate.

Sardines keep for up to 2 weeks. Serve drizzled with extra olive oil and sprinkled with freshly cracked black pepper.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 02:46:50

    We have pretty much quit eating fish, for the reason you reference here. (Though Steve is fond of telling me, when I become particularly obnoxious about it restaurants: “Hush, Michelle, that particular fish is already dead and it’s not the waiter’s fault.”) I read the Bottomfeeder book, I know that sardines are a good option. But, I have to say, this is the first recipe that’s made me want to make them!


    • scolgin
      Feb 21, 2012 @ 17:48:48

      Uh oh, you’re one of those kinds of dates. 😉 (I can see Steve hiding behind the menu…) The key is to get them fresh. When they’re really fresh, grilling and drizzling with olive oil and lemon juice is the best preparation.


  2. Mom
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 15:35:51

    I’m commenting because I think comments on this will be scarce. Most people don’t know what to make of sardines. My dad was British and liked any kind of salty fish.
    I’m in N. Carolina where the food is extraordinary. I had the best biscuits and trout of my life last night but at lunch in a restaurant that had been in business since 1948 I ordered green beans in lieu of an iceberg salad and got half a can in a paper cup. Bruce ordered the BBQ tray and got a cardboard 4″ by 5″ tray packed with grey stuff, half shredded pork and half cole slaw, indistinguishable from each other in appearance or taste.


  3. Glennis
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 22:38:23

    I even like the long-dead ones in the cans. I have early memories of sitting with my dad eating them on saltine crackers.

    I think we had fresh sardines fried in a Greek restaurant in Tarpon Springs, FL. They were delicious.

    the Westwood lunch restaurant Damon & Pythias served a beet-and-sardine sandwich that sounded so weird I had to try it. It was weird….but good.


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