A seafood meal is the one opportunity most Americans will ever have to eat a wild animal. Eating wild fish is like a swim in the ocean, except in this case the ocean swims inside of 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, great 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 them.
Sardine is a general term for the young individuals 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.
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. Pacific sardine stocks are stronger than they've been in decades and appear to be on the increase.
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.
Sardines are one of the healthiest fish in the sea. They feed on photosynthetic plankton and don't accumulate heavy metals like carnivorous fish do. That diet helps make sardines rich in omega-3 oils, and they're also rich in protein, good cholesterol, selenium, and — if you eat the soft bones — calcium and fluoride.
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 afterward, 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.
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.
The 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 their heads off.