This is the third week in a row that I have found fresh sardines at Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley so I decided it was time to write about them. Every time I put fresh sardines on the menu for my cooking classes not many people sign up! If you're like these students, then I hope that this post will change your mind.
I grew up eating fresh sardines and fresh anchovies. These small fish, caught in the early morning around Scalea, were small enough to transport to my inland town of Verbicaro. We had them often when they were in season and prepared them in many different ways.
Sardines, anchovies and mackerel belong to the pesci azzurri family, literally translated as “blue fish” because of the blue tone to their skin. Fresh sardines in particular are very good for you. Not only are they high in omega-3 fatty acids, but they are also a good source of vitamin D, calcium, B12, and protein. They are also very inexpensive. Here in California I usually pay $1.99 a pound for them. They are sustainable, cheap, and delicious, so what is keeping you away from trying them?
You'll want to buy fresh sardines ideally the same day they are caught; they spoil very quickly because of their high omega-3 fat level. For that reason you'll also want to clean them immediately, unless you have a fishmonger that will do it for you. Look for sardines that are fresh looking and not smelly, with shiny silver skin, and are whole. They should look like they just jumped out of water. Avoid them if they are bruised or look dark in color. Don’t buy them frozen! Sardines do not freeze well; the oils in them turn rancid even in a freezer, and the flesh becomes a mushy mess when thawed.
In Calabria people cook fresh sardines in many different ways. One of the easiest preparations is sarde ripiene, stuffed and baked. I've given you the recipe at the end of the post; it was in the manuscript of my forthcoming book, but because it was removed (I had too many sardine and anchovie recipes because I like them so much) you're in luck.
If I buy very small sardines I will prepare them whole the same way I do with fresh anchovies, just coated with flour and fried in olive oil, known as sarde fritte. Here are some more of the many ways we prepare fresh sardines in Calabria:
Polpette di sarde (sardine "meatballs", with the fish taking the place of meat)
Cotolette di sarde (breaded like a cutlet and fried)
Sarde al pomodoro (braised whole with tomatoes and onions)
Sarde alla griglia (grilled with just olive oil, lemon juice and parsley)
And I can’t forget my other two favorite ways of cooking fresh sardines, from my husband’s hometown of Palermo: sarde a beccafico, stuffed and rolled up, then baked with fresh oranges slices, and pasta con sarde, pasta with wild fennel, fresh sardines, pine nuts, raisins, and saffron, which I plan to make as soon as the wild fennel is ready to be picked.
To clean fresh sardines:
Hold the fish under cold running water and rub off the scales with your thumbnail. By hand, snap off the head and pull down; most of the innards will come out with the head. Use your thumbnail or a small paring knife to slit the belly down to the tail. Remove any remaining innards and rinse the interior.
I spared you the pictures and will show you what they need to look like when they are clean:
Once cleaned you will need to butterfly the sardines for this recipe. To remove the backbone from each sardine grasp the end of the backbone closer to the head and lift it out. It usually pulls away cleanly from the flesh, although sometimes it clings. If it does cling, gently work the backbone free with your fingers, damaging the flesh as little as possible. Keep the tail intact.
Sprinkle the sardines on both sides with salt. Spread about a tablespoon or so of filling on each half butterflied.
Top it with another butterflied sardine. Drizzle with olive oil and bake.
Ready to eat! Yummy!
Stuffed Baked Sardines
1 dozen fresh sardines, about 1-1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely minced capers
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Preheat the oven to 400ºF .
Remove the backbone from each sardine by grasping the end of the backbone closer to the head and lifting it out. It usually pulls away cleanly from the flesh, although sometimes it clings. If it does cling, gently work the backbone free with your fingers, damaging the flesh as little as possible. Keep the tail intact. Lay the boneless sardines open “butterfly” style. Remove as many of the other fine white bones as you can. Season the fish on both sides with the salt.
For the filling: In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, capers, lemon zest, garlic, and olive oil. Mix with your fingers until well blended.
Using 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, generously oil a baking dish large enough to hold six of the butterflied sardines. Arrange six of the sardines in the dish, skin side down. Top with the filling, dividing it evenly and pressing it into an even layer. Top each sardine with another sardine, skin side up. Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Bake until the fish are sizzling hot and the flesh is white and flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving. The dish is best warm, not hot. Divide the sardines among serving plates, drizzle each portion with a little extra virgin olive oil, and accompany with lemon wedges.