It's only recently, in this street-food-hip, nose-to-tail era that our gaze has slipped away from the filet mignon to make eyes at foods associated with poverty and bad times. While the sardine's popularity in America peaked during the First World War, feeding countless soldiers, it experienced a sharp decline in the post-war era, and Cannery Row, the iconic Monterey, California, setting of John Steinbeck's novel of the same name and the workhorse of U.S. sardine production, suffered a collapse after the 1940s.
But now, even as sardine season grinds to a halt on the West Coast, big-name chefs, including Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi,are urging us to eat more forage fish, and the "Save the Oceans, Feed the World" campaign they're aligned with is calling forage fish the "perfect protein."
So if you're interested in trying sardines for the first time or learning more about a misunderstood favorite, take some advice from James Beard award–winning chef and owner of New York’s Barchetta Dave Pasternack.
When choosing fresh sardines at your seafood market, Pasternack advises, "You'll want to look for sardines that have a bright silver color and are firm to the touch. They should have the aroma of a small, oily fish…because that’s what they are. However, they shouldn’t give off a bad odor."
As for the familiar canned sort, Pasternack’s choice is Sicily's Agostino Recca. "They are legendary in Italy," he said. "They do some stuff in oil, but most of their sardines are salted. It’s a beautiful product."
And it might be time to look for a new fishmonger if said individual refuses to clean the tiny fish for you. "You are paying for the service," said Pasternack. He added that cleaning and prepping sardines at home is tricky and "just makes a big mess."
Once your sardines are prepped and purchased, get ready to experiment. Try the following recipes if you need a starting point.
Pasternack, who recently released a cookbook, The Young Man and the Sea: Recipes & Crispy Fish Tales, offered one of his favorite ways to eat sardines:
- white vinegar
- sea salt
- 1 clove garlic
- thyme (a few sprigs)
- olive oil
- good bread — your choice
- Take your sardines and marinate in white vinegar (just enough so that the sardines are sitting in them), add some sea salt, a couple slices from a garlic clove, a few sprigs of thyme.
- After a half hour, flip the sardines over and marinate for another half hour (one hour total).
- Finish with good extra virgin olive oil and some toasted bread.
Fennel Salad with Salted Sardines, Unsalted Capers, and Fresh Mint from Agostino Recca
- 3 big fennels
- 6 Agostino Recca salted sardines
- 20g Agostino Recca unsalted capers
- fresh mint
- extra virgin olive oil
- freshly ground black pepper
- fresh lemon juice
- Wash the fennel, after removing the leaves, and then cut into thin slices.
- In a bowl, pour the fennel, the chopped salted sardines, capers, and fresh mint.
- Season with an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper.
Pasta con le Sarde (a traditional Sicilian dish)
- 1 lb fresh sardines (cleaned)
- 6 tbsp breadcrumbs
- 1 lb perciatelli (or ziti, or any long, hollow pasta)
- 1 fennel bulb
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp currants
- 1 tbsp. pine nuts
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- If your sardines still have a head and backbone, open the fish up flat and remove both with a sharp knife. Wash the fillets and shake dry. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
- Fill a large pot with enough water to cook the pasta. Reserve the tender top fronds of the fennel. Coarsely chop the remaining fennel top. Add the chopped tops to the water and bring to a boil.
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onion until soft. Set aside. Cook the sardines on both sides, in the same pan, until golden (you will have to cook a few at a time). Return all sardines to the pan. Add the onion, currants, and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add 4 tbsp of the boiling pasta water to the sauce. Salt the boiling water in the pot and cook the pasta to directions. Drain the pasta and remove most of the fennel tops. Combine pasta and sauce.
- Garnish with reserved fresh fennel fronds.