Fresh sardines make a fantastic meal. Not only are they full of healthy omega-3 fats like DHA and EPA, but they are approved by Seafood Watch. Because they are small fish that live low on the food chain, sardines are sustainable seafood low in toxic contaminants.
Simple preparation best showcases the delicate and delicious flavor of sardines. Just brush them with some extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle them with sea salt and grill or sauté them for a few minutes on each side. Then squeeze some fresh lemon on top and savor this special fish.
I was a vegetarian for almost a decade before I started eating seafood again. The nutrition courses I took in naturopathic medical school convinced me that the fatty acids found only in fish are essential for good health, so I incorporated seafood back into my diet while I was visiting my husband's family in Martinique, an island in the Caribbean where fresh seafood is a way of life.
As a former vegetarian, it was unusual to eat fish, but even more unusual to have an entire animal on my plate. I was familiar with fish fillets, but given the whole fish, I wasn't sure how to eat it. Luckily, my mother-in-law taught me how to remove the meat from the bones with great patience and, eventually, great skill. In case you aren't familiar, I will walk you through it. It may take some time at first, but the more you cook and eat fresh whole fish like sardines, the easier it will become.
Sardines are quick to clean and quick to cook. In case your fishmonger hasn't cleaned them, I've provided some instructions for that as well. It's easy and doesn't take long, even if you've never cleaned a fish before.
Fresh sardines, 2 or 3 per person
Extra virgin olive oil, first cold pressing
To clean the sardines:
If you don't have a food disposal in your sink, clean the fish over a strainer to catch the scales and innards.
Remove the fish scales using the square edge a paring knife (not the cutting edge) to scrape from the tail to the head. Be gentle enough to keep the skin intact. Rinse well.
Insert the cutting edge of the knife into the end of the digestive track, a small hole on the bottom of the fish near the tail. Make one cut, slicing up toward the head. Pull out the internal organs and rinse well. Set aside to drain in a clean strainer or on a clean towel. Clean the other fish.
To cook the sardines:
Preheat a grill pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of each fish with olive oil (be thorough to prevent them from sticking) and sprinkle both sides with sea salt. Place the fish on the preheated pan and cook for about 3 minutes, until the skin becomes crispy and lightly browned. Flip the fish and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes on the other side, until crispy and browned. Transfer the fish to a serving platter and serve immediately with fresh lemon slices.
To eat the sardines:
Make a cut down the middle of one side of the fish and gently pull the meat away from the center, leaving as many small bones as possible attached to the back bone.
Turn the fish over, make another cut down the middle and remove the rest of the meat in the same way.
Discard the tail, backbone and head (they should still be connected and you should be able to lift them away all as one piece). Leave the skin intact (it's full of those healthy fats) and remove any visible bones from the meat, including the area of several small bones near the fins. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chunks of fish and chew carefully, in case some bones went undetected.