If you're not traveling too far this summer, or if you just want to take a short trip to the Mediterranean in your own backyard, I have a secret for you — sardines. These lovely little fish are not only healthy, they're cheap, so easy to cook and very, very tasty. The light and fresh taste of a slightly salty fresh sardine, prepped with EVOO, salt and pepper, grilled and dressed with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon is actually a transformative experience that will make you feel like you're dining on the balcony of your quaint villa on the island of Skopelos overlooking the Aegean Sea. (I haven't actually been there, but I've seen Mamma Mia!).
But even if a little fish can't take you on vacation, you should still consider them for your next backyard party, or just to pair with a good book and a glass of white wine when you're on your own. Before I ever set food in my local seafood market to purchase fresh sardines, my only association with them were the canned variety. To me, and probably to most Americans, sardines are lumped in with other "prank foods" like frogs legs and cicadas. We see them as either a joke pizza topping or as a tinned food that's salty, bony, packed tightly and unappealing. This could not be further from the truth. Sardines, whether fresh or canned, can actually enhance the flavor profile of so many dishes, from salads to pasta and beyond.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, you'll be doing your body a favor by eating them too. Packed with nutrients, sardines have "2 grams of heart-healthy omega-3s per 3 ounce serving, which is one of the highest levels of omega-3 and the lowest levels of mercury of any fish." They're also a great source of calcium and vitamin D which means they support bone health.
"When most people think of sardines, they think of the ones that come in cans," Frank Proto, director of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education told TODAY Food via email. "Fresh sardines are on a whole other level. I have served fresh sardines throughout my career. They aren’t the easiest fish to work with, but definitely are worth the time."
Sardines are eaten all over in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Greece.
"Most Americans would probably say they don’t like sardines," said Proto. "They make a great appetizer, they are good for you, and they are one of the cheaper fish out there."
Proto advised that when shopping for fresh sardines, to look for clear eyes, flesh that is firm and that the gills are red, all indicators of freshness. Be sure they don't smell too fishy, either. Once you have them home, keep them as cold as possible.
"Sardines are fatty and get softer as they warm up. If you are filleting them, make sure they are ice cold."
"Sardines are oily, so I tend to pair them with things that are salty, acidic and spicy," he said. "Anything that is a counterpoint to oil."
As far as how to cook them, Proto said that his favorite way is on the grill. "They don’t take long to cook so start with a hot, clean grill and cook for a few minutes on each side. Make sure to get some grill marks!"
Proto suggests serving sardines with a sauce like chimichurri, grilled bread and a small salad of bitter greens like arugula or watercress. Or you could serve them even more simply, as I did this past weekend.
With a my best friend who I'd missed spending time with during the pandemic, we rinsed and patted dry half a dozen lovely sardines, doused them with some good olive oil and S&P and threw them on my backyard grill. As the good wine and even better conversation flowed, we were happy to be right where we were — in New Jersey, enjoying a taste of the Mediterranean.