February 25, 2012
It seems the more we learn about nutrition and food the more we wonder what we should really be eating in an ideal world. The answers don’t come easily. For every study that indicates a benefit to a food, it seems there’s an equally good reason not to consume that item. In fact my best friend’s husband just produced the first episode of a podcast series on nutrition which touches on the challenges involved in choosing a meal in light of all the conflicting information available.
While it’s true that I eat many things that don’t fit into the ideal food category (bacon, anyone?), I do try fairly diligently to space those choice out between healthier choices.
Now that we’re expecting our first child, food choices seem even more critical than ever before. What am I training my baby’s tastes buds to enjoy? Am I feeding them brain food or contributing to eating disorders later in life?
One of the food paradoxes I’ve found most conflicting and disappointing centers around fish. We hear that fish is a super food, full of omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to all manner of wonderful things from brain building to cholesterol control. Great, you think, I love fish – I’ll add some to every meal! Not so fast, though. Thanks in part to the gross mistreatment of our planet, all the fish that’s fit to eat is either contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury or it’s been over-fished to the point that it’s difficult to enjoy in good conscience.
Lucky for us, there is a way to enjoy the delicious benefits of fish without overdosing on mercury or overfishing our seas. As it turns out sardines are not only full of those brain-feeding Omega 3 Fatty Acids, they’re also low in mercury and harvested relatively sustainably! Additionally, you can get them fresh in the Bay Area several times a year at a ridiculously low rate ($2.50/lb!) then preserve them to last the next couple of months.
Sardines are gross, though, right? They come crammed so tightly into a tin can that they’ve earned their own idiom and they’re super salty and fishy, almost to the point of being inedible. That’s what I thought anyway and I found to my surprise that I couldn’t have been more wrong when it came to fresh sardines.
Inspired by this article in the San Francisco Chronicle last July about the Bay Area sardine season, I set out to find a local store that carried them. After a few calls to my local fish mongers I ended up at Berkeley Bowl, greedily buying up whatever sardines they had left. I decided that given their nutritional value and low cost to the environment (not to mention the nervous system) I would learn to love these little-appreciated fishes.
The one drawback, I learned, is that you do typically have to buy them whole and clean them yourself. That was okay with me – it gave me a little project I suppose. I’d never cleaned a fish before (I know, I know but this was a dad thing in my family) but a little searching online and through my cookbooks yielded an easy and somewhat satisfying method by Mark Bittman in “How to Cook Anything”.
Cleaning the fish:
Not so appetizing looking now
First, you want to rinse the fish in cold water to rinse off any slime and guts that might make them slippery to handle. Mine had been thrown rather roughly into a plastic bag so they needed this step.
Next, you use a sharp pair of kitchen shears to snip off the fins. You should find a fin on the top of the fish, the dorsal fin. Just snip it off, being certain to remove the entire fin. Then remove the fin the bottom of the fish, the pelvic fin, in the same way.
Finally remove the fins on each side of the fish just below the gills, the pectoral fins. There’s no need to save the fins as they aren’t edible – they could even be a choking hazard so it’s important to remove them. They’re also not good in stock so throw them into your discard pile. Don’t worry about removing the large tail fin at this point.
Removing the head
The next step is removing the head. You can do this by using a sharp knife to the kitchen shears again to cut just behind the gills, being certain to remove all the gills. Just cut right through the spine. I found that the kitchen shears work just as well for this as the knife does so you might want to try that method as well. The head, along with the bones you’ll be removing later will make a delicious stock so be sure to save them. You can always freeze them until you’re ready to make stock.
Opening the cavity
Now you’re going to open up the fish’s internal cavity by starting at the anal opening and cutting up the belly all the way to where the head used to be. I tried using both the knife and the kitchen shears but preferred the shears. Don’t insert them too far- you want to avoid cutting open the entrails.
Opening the cavity
Once you’ve cut the fish open along the belly you should be able to slide your finger in and open up the internal cavity, easily pulling out the ‘nasty bits’. All that should be left at this point is meat, spine and tail fin. The guts should all go into the discard pile.
Sardine spine removed
You should now be able to separate the meat from the spine, gently pulling the spine up starting near the head end of the fish and moving back toward the tail, being careful to bring all the tiny bones with it. Once you get to the tail, if you tug gently, the fins should come right off with the spine. The spine should go into your stock pile while the tail fins should go into the discard pile.
Fish heads can be used for a rich stock
Now you have a lovely piece of cleaned fish. All items in the discard pile (guts and gills) can be buried in your garden to give it a healthy boost. Be sure to bury it deeply enough where it won’t be dug up by your local raccoon or resident dog or cat. Use the bones and heads for a rich homemade fish stock.
Lay out skin side down
Give the fillet a quick rinse in water and pat dry and then place it on a baker’s rack or other sheet, skin side down.
Refrigerate at least an hour until the fish are completely dry.
Lightly salt the fish on both sides then you’re ready to move on to cooking it!
Cooking the fish:
Cooking the fish is probably the simplest part. Heat a thin layer of vegetable or olive oil in a skillet. Once the oil is hot, add the fillets a few at a time, making sure they don’t overlap. Leave them in the oil until the edges turn a little crispy but there is a still a strip of light pink in the very middle of the fish. Remove them from the pan and allow them to cool on a baking sheet. Continue to fry all the fish in batches.
For my money, eating them still hot out of the oil is the tastiest way to enjoy fresh sardines. There is no fishy flavor that you might want to associate with sardines – in fact, they’re fresh tasting and quite delicious prepared this way.
Spoonbar's Lemon Marinade
However, if you bought a lot like I did to take advantage of the short season and you’d like to preserve them to enjoy them for a longer period, you might want to try the method of lemon-curing them that Spoonbar uses as described in the SF Chronicle’s article that originally inspired me.
Curing the Sardines:
(based on Spoonbar’s recipe in the SF Chronicle)
For every 4 sardines, weighing 3-4 ounces each and prepared as described above, use the following amounts:
- 3/8 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup wine wine vinegar (our addition)
- 3/8 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
Adding the marinade to sardines
Simply mix the ingredients together and pour over a layer of the fish in a shallow dish.
The marinade combines lemon juice with vinegar, olive olive, fresh oregano and red chili flakes to add a little flavor while preserving the fish for up to three months. A dirty little secret is that I forgot about my preserved batch in the refrigerator for more than a few months and when I came back to try it, the fish has lost a little structure from the acid in the lemon juice but it was every bit as tasty as it was after curing for a week. That’s not me condoning letting it sit in the fridge forever, but it seems you can use your own judgment.
In addition to adding to salads, I’ve also served these on a cheese plate. Let it come to room temperature on a separate plate before adding it to your serving platter because the olive oil will melt all over once it’s no longer refrigerated. I’ve converted many an unsuspecting sardine-hater with these lovelies!
Last I checked sardines were still available at a few local places so go pick some up now before the run is over! If you want to enjoy the benefits of sardines and can’t bring yourself to go through the work of cleaning them you might want to enjoy them at one of these Bay Area restaurants.
Have you had any luck preserving in-season low-mercury fish? I’d love to hear what you tried and what worked or didn’t!