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Tales of the Testers: I'm a Sardinista, Too

Can you tell which one's fresh? (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

No fresh sardine had ever made its way into my kitchen prior to mid-May, when I began testing recipes for today's section. And here the fish tales begin. Lucky for you we have not yet installed smell-o-vision.

The tweet version: A little hard to come by...Bigger and easier to clean than I expected...Cooking odors ling-errrr...Hooboy.

The chronological, unfolding version: On any given day, your neighborhood fishmonger here in Washington won’t have fresh sardines in stock. They’re oily enough to get mushy fairly quickly; sometimes a substandard shipment will come in and the fishmongers will send it right back. Good for them, good for you.

So calling around to check availability is in order. For Washington, fresh Portuguese sardines arrive by air on Thursdays and are sold in a few area stores. Whole Portuguese sardines are sold frozen, in two sizes. Why get them at all? Jane Black’s story makes a convincing case. Plus, they're inexpensive. Guys at 12th and Maine Avenue said they sometimes have sardines on Fridays or Saturdays, but they're really herring.

I wondered whether fresh would fare that much better than frozen in roasting and grilling applications, so I got enough of both to test and retest the Stuffed Sardines recipe in today's section..

The seven-inch whole sardines I picked up from A&H Gourmet Seafood Market in Bethesda were obviously fresh: soft, not smelly, with a pink tinge around where their gills used to be. (Boy is that a nifty market; I’ll save details for another blogging day.) The frozen sardines from the European Market in Rockville were about the same size and looked slightly plumper. As they defrosted in the refrigerator (in an opened bag), a slight aroma was evident each time I opened the fridge door.

Cleaning the fresh sardines was a hands-on operation that took about 15 seconds per fish. I used a table knife to rub/scrape away scales. I inserted a thumb right where a fish’s neck would be (if it had one). This begat a split down the belly of the sardine. I pinched off the backbone as close to the head as I could and lifted it out slowly to keep as much of the flesh intact as possible. The guts could be wiped away with my thumb and a finger. A quick rinse of cool running water, and that was it. I’d been told that leaving the heads on would make a sardine dish more flavorful, so that’s where the fish prep ended.

Again, a little whiff of things to come prompted me to work faster. Discarded materials went straight to the trash can outside.

Oven-roasted Stuffed Sardines taste great but stink up the house. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

For the Stuffed Sardines, a mixture of parsley, garlic, tomato and bread crumbs went in each salt-and-peppered fish, with olive oil and more tomato and parsley strewn on top. Once in the oven, the garlic sent out some impressive aromas, but ultimately it was no match for both fresh and frozen sardines. Besides their olfactory out-loudness, the biggest difference between fresh and frozen was the texture. Once roasted, the fresh sardines remained moist. The frozen ones weren't bad, really, but they were mushier.

And ooh, that smell: Between pan-roasting for chef Dean Gold’s recipe and the oven roasting, the first floor of my house reeked of sardines for three days. I simmered water with cloves and lemon halves. Note: Those are not natural flavor affinities for sardines. I did not attempt any maneuvers with cinnamon sticks.

Time and Febreze and a few days of cool nights with open windows took care of things.

Grilling's a fine option, as long as you've got a grid-like grilling basket that can sandwich the sardines together. The fish are large enough to lay across a grill grate, but it'd be a shame to have them fall apart when you turn them. My cat and the ones next door were awfully interested. Bottom line: As long as I have access to the fresh ones, I'll be happy to make them again. Portion size is nice; I'm a fan of serving fish whole. The sardines tasted a little like bluefish to me, but more tender.

Have you cooked with them? Care to share any Heloise-esque tips for disseminating cooking smells this ferocious?

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  June 3, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, seafood  
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I learned how to stuff sardines in Nice where they are split as you did and stuffed with a lightly cooked onion, garlic and spinach stuffing and drizzle with olive oil then baked until done. Very quick and I have never had a problem with odor with the sardines I buy in France so I am surprised!

I also grill them with the same stuffing.

Posted by: robinshuster | June 3, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I have to say that I'm appalled at this article. The best sardines are Portuguese, period! Bonnie Benwick has to have a sardine grilled by a true Portuguese. Portuguese do not stuff their sardines, they simply grill them over wood charcoal with course kosher salt and that's it! You don't get your sardines cleaned, again appalling. Sardines are again, simply grilled and you eat around the guts, cleaned sardines are not the true meaning of sardines! Bonnie obviously did little research for this article and didn't dig deep enough to have a true Portuguese experience with sardines.
Also, sardines don't stink, if they do they are bad!
Uma Portuguesa

Posted by: iwishiwas | June 8, 2009 11:11 PM | Report abuse

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