In Portugal's fishing villages, eating sardines is a ritual. "Typically the fisherman goes out in the morning with his son," says Portugal-born chef Manuel Azevedo, who now lives in Sonoma, California, where he owns a contemporary Portuguese restaurant, LaSalette. "They net sardines while his wife gets the charcoal going, and that'll be their lunch – eat it standing up and toss the bones to a cat." Whole fresh sardines, seared on the embers, have grown from a traditional Portuguese staple to worldwide-status food, especially on upscale Mediterranean menus around the U.S. Chalk it up, in part, to omega-3 mania: Sardines are loaded with the heart-healthy fatty acids and are very low in mercury. But it's the intense flavor that makes the lowly sardine the perfect grilling fish. "Halibut, by contrast, is too delicate," says Mediterranean specialist Craig Stoll, executive chef at Delfina in San Francisco. "But sardines? The grilled flavors and the fish enhance one another instead of fighting."
• Sardines (about 3 per person)
• olive oil
Buy ultrafresh fish. Fresh sardines are seasonal – look for them in the summer months – and powerfully flavored, so freshness is paramount. Less fresh sardines should be gutted before grilling.
Place them in a grill basket. The one modern-day upgrade that can only enhance the experience is a nonstick fish-grilling basket (charbroil.com). Toss whole sardines in olive oil while your grill gets nice and hot, then lay them side by side in the grilling basket, as many as will fit in a single layer without crowding. Set the basket on the hottest part of the grill. After 2 minutes, turn it over and let them cook for another 2 minutes.
Serve whole. Sprinkle liberally with salt and squeeze a fresh lemon to finish. Add an empty bowl for carcasses. Pick up a whole sardine, holding the head in one hand and the tail in the other, and eat like a tiny corn on the cob.