Sardines: Love Those Little Fishes

As mentioned last week, I'm on an eat more fish at home kick, and so far, so good. In addition to tilapia, I've added fresh sardines to the lineup. I don't know what it is about me and the advent of spring, but I gotta have some fresh sardines at this time of year. I'll take a pass on the canned stuff, thank you very much, when the fresh six-inchers are so light, quick cooking and play nicely with other ingredients.

Sardines in waiting. (Kim O'Donnel)

Plus--and it's a big plus -- sardines rule when it comes to heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and as a non-predatory fish low on the food chain there's no worry of mercury contamination. (For more info on other species, check out the chart of the most contaminated fish and recommended monthly servings from Environmental Defense.)

Oh, and there's more good word from the nutrition department: Sardines are loaded with protein (16 grams per 3.5 ounce serving) and serve up a fair amount of calcium, potassium and iron.

All that trash talk you hear about sardines stinking up the joint bears a bit of clarification. Like other oily-skinned fish (trout and blue fish), when cooked, sardines will aromatize the room more than the mild-mannered flesh of tilapia, for instance. Uncooked sardines, when gutted, should smell clean like the sea; if a stench emits from the fish wrapper, remove the head, gills and innards immediately, rinse thoroughly, then give it a good whiff. If the stink stays, chances are you've got a fish gone bad, and red eyes are a sign of deterioration. No need for fancy tools when gutting a sardine; a clean pair of scissors will do the job, as will a pair of nimble fingers to lift up that fine line of vertebrae.

Once clean, sardines take mere minutes to cook, making possible a 15-minute supper. Although grilled sardines are lovely, I am partial to pan frying mine, as demonstrated in my how-to video of a spritzy sardine salad with citrus and bitter salad greens.

In addition to citrus, I love pairing sardines with briny vittles, such as olives and capers or even a little Dijon mustard. Some of the sardine suggestions in "One Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish" by Carole C. Baldwin and Julie H. H. Mounts include white bean puree and radishes for a tres cool crostini topping, or a fun salad of fingerling potatoes with salsa verde and watercress. Doesn't that just scream spring?

(I'm also partial to frying up a quick sardine in olive oil and slapping it between two pieces of bread, with hot sauce. Don't tell!)

By the way, I've got a new favorite book on seafood: "The River Cottage Fish Book" by the very prolific Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his co-fisherman Nick Fisher. I've got my hands on the British edition, which covers many species unavailable in U.S. waters, but as with his impassioned meat tome, "Hugh" has got the sustainability angle covered. Reading this book is like going to fish school.

Got a fresh sardine tale to share? Do tell in the comments area.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 12, 2008; 7:32 AM ET Seafood
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I had a good sardine appetizer dish at the Tabard Inn during restaurant week.

Posted by: UMmmmm | March 12, 2008 9:28 AM

I am always a little skeeved out by whole fish, especially when their heads are still attached. Is there a way to cut a sardine so it looks more like a little fillet, or are they too small for that? Also, do you eat the skin?

Posted by: Phoebe | March 12, 2008 11:11 AM

I used to get the most amazing sardines out in San Francisco at a tapas place in the Mission. They were so crunchy, I think they might almost have been deep fried. They were incredibly garlicky too. Oh, how I miss them!

Posted by: MamaBird | March 12, 2008 11:34 AM

Love the idea of fresh sardines. Where in the DC area would one look for them?

Posted by: Reine de Saba | March 12, 2008 12:07 PM

what a perfect time for this post! I just (tried to) made Nasi Lemak , a malaysian dish that involves fried anchovies. However, I have never used these so bought sardines instead. Should these two fishes be cooked differently? Are they really that different in flavor?

Posted by: new york | March 12, 2008 12:13 PM

Can anyone comment on smelts (nutrition, preparation, etc.)?
I've only ever had them deep fried, and they may just cancel out any nutritional benefit.

Posted by: TriciaGray | March 12, 2008 1:21 PM

Thank you for the warm memories! My mom for years treasured the memory of her father grilling fresh sardines outdoors in Romania when she was a young child. When Campanile Restaurant in Los Angeles began offering fresh grilled sardines my husband and I took my parents and all our teenage children and of course ordered the sardine appetizer for everyone. When mom merely picked at her food, we questioned her and she was forced to admit that yes, she treasured one of the few memories of her father, but no, she had never said that she actually liked the sardines....

Posted by: Carolyn in Los Angeles | March 12, 2008 4:14 PM

New York: Wow! You found fresh anchovies? Lucky dog. These are hard to find, even more difficult than fresh sardines. Because they're smaller, anchovies should probably stay away from the grill (unless you've got a handy basket), but will cook very quickly when pan fried. Flavor of 'chovies is a bit more intense, I reckon.

Reine, try Slavin's in Arlington, Cannon's in DC or your nearby Whole Foods.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 13, 2008 10:53 AM

Phoebe: Absolutely, you can cut off the head so that you have a butterflied fillet. Once the head is off, rinse and gut thoroughly and the flesh will give way and open up. And yes, you can eat the skin, it's especially nice when all crisped up.
TriciaGray: Smelts are also known as "whitebait" and from what I understand are immature sprats or herring. What's interesting about smelts is that they're anadromous, meaning that like wild salmon spawn in freshwater but migrate to the ocean for the rest of their lives. Still looking for nutritional info.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 13, 2008 11:03 AM

There's nothing like a visit to Portugal to get you into liking sardines. There they are grilled at the beach with nothing more than sea salt and parsley added. I like to use a grill pan over a high burner for three to four minutes and then another four minutes or so under a broiler. They pair perfectly with black beans. Enjoy!

Posted by: Steve | March 14, 2008 9:13 AM

Phoebe, don't be a wuss. Stick them on a cracker and smack them down. Or go with the canned ones, they don't have heads. They are delicious, just don't think about eating their entire body and you'll be fine. After all, oysters and clams look kinda gross but taste great!

Posted by: John Lease | March 14, 2008 11:35 AM

Oh! Those delicious sardines! I've loved them ever since I was a child. My mother would lightly cook them and slap them down on buttered or margerined open-faced toast with a side salad. I also love the canned ones, on crackers, on bread, by themselves. When other kids were eating peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, I only ate sardine sandwiches. In fact, this went on for about a year or so...Mother worried, the doctor said "As long as she's eating and it's sardines, Don't worry!" I'm 60 now and still each them at least once a week. Happy and delicious little fishies, I love them so!

Posted by: Chris | March 14, 2008 3:41 PM

If you can't find fresh, try canned that are skinless, boneless, and in olive oil. With some crackers (etc.) they are fantastic, high in protein and omegas, and don't taste "fishy" at all. They're also great in sauce over pasta.

Posted by: CvillePatrick | March 15, 2008 1:08 AM

I live in Portugal and endorse 'Steve's
My recipe is
Grill in a double-sided wire grill (opens like a book) until the flesh is still almost pink alongside the spine (try one to see) - the sardine needs far less cooking than other comparable species.
Serve in fingers with country bread still warm from the oven, chopped garlic, olive oil, black olives (and rough sea salt if you are healthy when it does you no harm). Bom proveito!

Posted by: Guy Bellairs | March 15, 2008 2:34 PM

My last blog forgot to add that strong red wine is the only accompaniment to sardines.
Serve it very slightly warm.

Posted by: Guy Bellairs | March 15, 2008 2:37 PM

Hey, I love canned sardines! - more so than fresh ones... Perhaps, A Mighty Appetite could provide us with some ideas for canned sardines.

Posted by: Loves Canned Sardines | March 15, 2008 6:36 PM

Don't live in Portugal, alas, but visit often. I have eaten grilled sardinhas here quite a lot and they are heaven. Sometimes just with bread, but often in restaurants with boiled potatoes and roasted peppers on the side. The best sardines are available in June when they are fattest.

When I return home to the DC area I always bring a couple of dozen cans of sardines in olive oil of this one particular brand. The fish in the cans are much larger than we are used to in the States and they are SO good. They do have sardines in regular oil, but olive oil is a must. Brand is Vasco da Gama (after the name of the explorer). Bom apetite!

Posted by: CurrentlyinLisbon | March 16, 2008 7:39 AM

You eat ALL the sardine,including skin, bone etc
They are often found under names like sprats, brisling,smelts.
If fresh, fry in some oil till you like the way look!
Canned, they come in oil,water, smoked
and various seaonings.
Sinple sandwich solutions, salt and pepper,vinegar, mustard, you name it!
Flavor is delicate, so use plain white bread, French, Cubano.
Most sardines are small,but they can come the size of small herring.

Tilapia?? probably the most tasteless of all fish.
Try haddock, flounder, snapper e.g., all of which taste many times better!!

Posted by: Len Honess | March 16, 2008 4:06 PM

Fresh sardines were great the one time I had them... and someday I will manage to grill some for myself.

Meanwhile: canned sardines, preferably large, opened butterfly style, on good whole grain bread - grill briefly in a toaster oven and squeeze on lemon juice to taste - quite nice!

Posted by: Rose | March 16, 2008 4:07 PM

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