Sardines – The Misunderstood Fish

 

Fresh sardines at the market

 
Sardines are an underrated culinary pleasure – they definitely don’t enjoy nearly the same status as salmon, for example.  I’m not talking about the little ones that are packed into a little tin.  I mean fresh sardines, which have a lot of good things going for them:
  • They’re healthy:  Sardines have more omega-3 fatty acids than almost any other fish. They’re also packed with  calcium and protein.
  • They’re affordable:  They are much cheaper than most local seafood, you can buy them around $4-$5/lb.  in season.
  • They’re safe:  Sardines are harvested when they’re only a few years old, so they don’t accumulate the mercury levels that tuna and other slow-growing fish acquire.
  • They’re a sustainable seafood:  Sardines reproduce quickly, so they don’t face the threat of overfishing that other more popular fish do.

Fresh sardines also don’t taste anywhere near the same way that canned do.  Trust me, they’re better.

Finding fresh sardines is a good reason to drop everything and run to the market.   They’re usually available in the summer, but you might be able to find them as late in the season as early December, if you’re lucky.  You should eat them the day that you buy them, because they’re not always available at the market (even in season) and you don’t know when you’ll see them again.  Because they are high in omega-3s, they tend to spoil faster than other fish.  They also don’t freeze well.

I had seen fresh sardines at the market early in the summer and I didn’t buy them.  It was 7 months before I saw them again this week, and while I overpaid for them (at Whole Foods, no less), they were worth the cost.  Whenever I see them at a restaurant (which, sadly, is rare), I’ll order them.

As I have said in the past, with seafood, simplicity is key.  The best way to eat fresh sardines is either grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; or my favorite way: lightly dusted with a mixture of flour, salt, and a pinch of cayenne pepper and then fried in a touch of olive oil in a skillet (2-3 minutes per side).  Don’t forget a nice squirt of lemon over the top.

Lightly dust with flour, salt, and cayenne pepper. Shake excess off.

 

Cook for about 3 minutes per side. Be careful not to overcook.

 
 

Enjoy sardines the day you buy them, because you don't know when you'll see them again.

 
 

Calamari-Eggplant Salad

A while back, I had said that the best way to enjoy seafood was in its simplest form, without a lot of fuss — in other words, no frying, no extra sauces, no “crusts”.  Why mess with the beautiful flavor of fresh seafood?  Grilling, broiling and steaming, at least for me, are the way to go.  I like to take advantage of some of the world’s best seafood from right in our backyard .

This was my dinner tonight.  It’s a revised version of a dish that I had in Athens a few years ago.  The original was made with octopus.  While I am not a huge fan of the chewy texture of octopus (believe me, I have tried many, many times to like it), fresh calamari is a nice alternative. 

Serve with nice, fresh crusty bread.

Fresh, cleaned whole calamari. Check out these bad boys!

 

Calamari and Eggplant Salad

(serves 2)

  • 1/2 lb fresh calamari/squid, cleaned
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 wine glass of wine
  • 2 small to medium sized eggplants
  • 1 medium size tomato, seeds removed and chopped into cubes
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped
  • dried mint
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic or wine vinegar
  • salt, fresh pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of dried oregano
 
Eggplants:  Roast the eggplants in a 400 degree oven until cooked through, about 45 minutes.  They will become soft and mushy and charred. Let cool, peel the skin off of the eggplants and “rough chop” the pulp and place in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients.
 
Calamari: Bring a medium-sized saucepan of heavily salted water and one bay leaf to a boil.  Add the wine. Place the calamari (whole) into the water and poach until it is tender.
 
Chop the calamari and add to the eggplant mixture.  Mix all of the ingredients, adjust the seasonings if needed and enjoy.
 
(DP note: if you wish to use octopus instead, place the octopus and bay leaf in a saucepan on low heat to cook until it becomes very tender.  No liquid is required as the octopus will release its own liquid as it cooks. As soon as it is steamed and tender, increase the heat to high and add the wine, cooking for another 4-5 minutes.  Chop then add to the eggplant mixture.)
 

The finished dish

 

Tasty Packages

I love seafood of any sort.  We’re so lucky to be living in this part of the country where the cold waters of the North Atlantic provide us with some of the best-tasting seafood.  OK, so I’ve never had the seafood of the Pacific Northwest, which I have heard is fantastic – but I have eaten warm water seafood from the south, as well as seafood throughout various parts of Europe, yet I still wax melodic about New England’s.

Cooking seafood as simply as possible is the best way to enjoy it: a nice tuna steak fresh off the grill in the summertime, or  a nice bowl of mussels steamed in their own juices with a little bit of broth made from white wine and garlic. Delish.

I’m a big proponent of letting seafood be the star of the dish.  That means no unnecessary sauces, marinades or “crusts” to detract from its fresh, crisp, and delicious taste.  Just a little bit of olive oil and a lemon is all that’s really needed to dress it up.

Cooking in individual packets is a technique known as “en papillote,” in which the food is put into a folded pouch and then baked.  The pouch is generally made with parchment paper, but aluminum foil can also be used.  It holds in the moisture and steams the food.  The moisture can come from the food itself, or from another source such as a tiny bit of water, wine, or stock.  The result is a very juicy and tender protein, infused with any flavors that you add via herbs or vegetables. You can get very creative with your flavors.  En papillote is generally done with fish or chicken. 

Cooking “en papillote” is a nice way to enjoy a quick, simple, healthy, and very delicious meal.  The best part is that there is virtually no clean-up!  You just toss the parchment packet.  The presentation is also impressive if you happen to have dinner guests – each person gets his or her own little packet.

 

Salmon “en Papillote”

(serves 2)

  • Parchment paper
  • 10 oz salmon fillet, cut into two portion sizes
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon
  • Garlic Powder
  • Paprika (for color)
  • Salt
  • Your favorite vegetables, optional but any of the following are nice: carrots, onions, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, leeks

Preheat oven to 375.  Cut a piece of parchment large enough to fully envelope the fish and place in a baking dish.  Place one piece of fish in the center.  Drizzle a little bit of olive oil.  No other moisture is needed because the salmon will release its own juices as it cooks.  Sprinkle with garlic powder, salt, and some paprika for color.  Place a few slices of lemon along the top of the fish. 

Crimp the sides of the packet and then along the top until the packet is fully enclosed.

Cook for roughly 30-35 minutes.  Once you can smell the fish and the lemon, it’s done.    Remove from the oven and carefully open the pouch by cutting a slit in it and letting the steam escape first and then unwrap entirely.