Grilled Spicy Citrus Sardines  - Recipes
Grilled Spicy Citrus Sardines

You would have to look long and hard before finding a fish more underappreciated than the sardine.

For years this small, iridescent fellow has been written off as too boney, oily or fishy -- or just too startling, with head and tail intact, to see fresh or in a can. Yet, thanks to its environmental friendliness and healthful properties, the sardine seems poised to conquer American palates.

People haven't always been so reluctant to eat sardines. In the 19th century they were an economic staple in England's West Country, where fishermen accepted the fish as part of their pay. And 20th-century Americans had a passion for sardines as well. These flavorful fish fed American soldiers during two world wars and provided jobs for vast numbers of workers. In their heyday of the 1920s to 1940s, sardines were the backbone of America's largest, most profitable fisheries.

Eventually, however, their popularity led to their downfall. Overfishing as well as the natural ocean growth cycle depleted their supply. Without sardines in the supermarkets, shoppers soon turned to -- and stuck with -- canned tuna for their inexpensive, portable, and easy to prepare meals.

Sardines have since rebounded and now thrive in U.S. waters from spring to fall. Because of their abundance and carefully controlled fishing practices, they have become a smart choice for environmentally conscious diners.

Likewise, they have much to offer healthful eaters. Since sardines are wild-caught and primarily consume plants, they don't accumulate high levels of mercury as larger carnivorous fish do.

Additionally, they contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. They also are a good source of protein.

Beyond their environmental and health benefits, sardines woo diners with moist, rich meat reminiscent of hearty tuna. They also pair well with other foods. The earthy tang of sardines tastes great with vegetables as diverse as eggplants, bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes; with fruits such lemons, oranges and raisins; and with herbs such as basil, fennel, parsley and rosemary.

In spite of these selling points, the sardine has its detractors, many of whom are daunted by the problem of how to debone such small fish. Well, here's how "The All New Joy of Cooking" (Scribner, 1997) advises cooks to tackle this task:

First, snap down on the sardine's head and pull it off in a downward motion. After removing the head, use your forefingers to open the fish from front to back.

Once the fish is opened, wipe out the entrails and tug out the backbone. When the backbone is removed, you will be left with two small fillets held together by the skin. These fillets should be rinsed and dried before cooking.

Should this task prove too painstaking or unappealing, chances are there's a fishmonger near you that will debone fresh sardines for you. If all else fails, skinless, boneless sardines are available in cans.

Another challenge is how to prepare sardines. Other than plunking them atop a pizza or eating them straight from the can, most don't know what to do with them.

Fortunately, cooking sardines couldn't be simpler. Their fatty flesh makes them perfect for grilling, broiling or frying.

To grill sardines, remove the entrails but not the heads. Attached heads ensure that the fragile fish will remain whole on the grill.

Rinse and dry them, sprinkle them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lay them in a fish grill basket. Place the basket over hot charcoal and grill for approximately 3 minutes on each side.

Along with their success in being grilled, broiled or fried, fresh sardines spice up a variety of dishes, including the Mediterranean specialty escabeche and the British standard stargazy pie. The latter, eye-catching dish boasts of whole herb-stuffed sardines whose heads poke out around the edge of a thick piecrust. Presumably, the name "stargazey" comes from the sardines gazing upward at the stars.

Less dramatic but no less delectable are canned sardines. They easily replace anchovies in Caesar salads, brighten vegetable hoagies and, of course, adorn pizzas.

When mashed, canned sardines turn ordinary butter or cream cheese into a zesty spread.

If buying fresh sardines, look for shiny, silvery skins, bright eyes and firm, pinkish, moderately oily flesh. Quality canned ones give off a mild, pleasant aroma and are packed in oil that is heavy and clear. When cooked, good sardines have a luxurious, meaty flavor.

Keep in mind that, similar to anchovies, fresh sardines spoil quickly. A simple sniff test will indicate whether they have started to deteriorate. Smells fishy? Move on to another sardine.

With so many health and environmental benefits and a wealth of quick yet delicious recipes, the time has come to appreciate the beauty of sardines.

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Grilled Spicy Citrus Sardines

    Prep Time: 50 minutes

    Cook time: 8 minutes

    Yield: Serves 4

Grilled Spicy Citrus Sardines Ingredients

    1/4 cup lemon juice

    Zest of 1 lemon

    2 tablespoons limejuice

    1/3 cup olive oil

    2 cloves garlic, grated

    3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    8 whole, fresh sardines, cleaned and deboned

    Sea salt, to taste

    2 lemons, washed and quartered

Grilled Spicy Citrus Sardines Recipe Instructions

    Place the sardines on a platter.

    Whisk together the lemon and lime juices, lemon zest, olive oil, garlic, pepper flakes and pepper.

    Pour the marinade over the sardines, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes.

    Do not allow the sardines to marinate more than 30 minutes or they will become mushy.

    While the fish is marinating, preheat the grill.

    Lightly grease the interior of a fish grill basket or a sheet of aluminum foil with olive oil.

    Remove the sardines from the refrigerator and place them either in the fish basket or on the foil.

    Sprinkle the salt over the sardines.

    Grill 3 to 4 minutes on each side.

    Serve hot on a bed of couscous or mixed greens with the wedges of lemon for flavoring.

Onion-Sardine Pissaladiere

    Prep Time: 30 minutes

    Cook time: 30 minutes

    Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Onion-Sardine Pissaladiere Ingredients

    1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed

    3 tablespoons olive oil

    1 1/2 medium white onions, peeled and sliced into crescents

    3/4 teaspoon salt

    1 (3.75-ounce) can of skinless, boneless sardines

    1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped

    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Onion-Sardine Pissaladiere Recipe Instructions

    Preheat the oven to 400 F. Roll out the thawed puff pastry and place it on an ungreased baking sheet.

    In a medium frying or saute pan, heat the oil on medium high.

    Add the onions and salt, and saute until softened, about 6 minutes.

    Remove the onions from the pan and spread them evenly over the puff pastry.

    Using your fingers, break the sardines into chunks and place them on top of the onions, spacing them evenly apart.

    Sprinkle the fresh rosemary and dried thyme over the onions and sardines and insert the pissaladiere into the oven.

    Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the pastry has puffed up and the edges have browned slightly.

    Cut into squares and serve warm.

Sardine Spread

    Prep Time: 15 minutes

    Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Sardine Spread Ingredients

    1 (8-ounce) package of cream cheese, softened

    1 (3.75-ounce) can of boneless, skinless sardines, drained

    1 clove garlic, crushed

    1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

    3 tablespoons light mayonnaise

    Freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Sardine Spread Recipe Instructions

    Place the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or in a medium sized mixing bowl and process/mash together until a smooth consistency is achieved.

    Taste and adjust for seasoning.

    Serve chilled with slices of baguette or pumpernickel bread, crackers or crudites.

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