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Portuguese Grilled Sardines, and Nary a Tin in Sight

Submitted by on August 15, 2009 – 7:40 pm6 Comments
 

 

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If you’ve written off sardines based on a fear of the silvery supermarket version sold in tins, then you’ve probably never had the privilege of tasting the real deal: fresh, big, fat sardines, salted, oiled and grilled outdoors until the skins are charred. These “Sardinhas Assadas” are a Portuguese summer staple, as much a national signature as gelato is in Italy and crepes are in France.  And they are absolutely nothing like the kind you get from a can.  Well-grilled, they are packed with smoky flavor and not the least bit fishy-tasting.  

Not that I have anything against canned sardines.  Quite the contrary: I have grown to appreciate canned sardines, which is a good thing; a 3oz serving of the canned variety (with bones) has 38% of the daily value of calcium, in addition to a full day’s worth of heart-brain-and eye-protective omega-3 fats. Sardines are also one of the rare natural food sources of Vitamin D, an essential nutrient that many (most?) Americans may be deficient in, according to a handful of recent studies; that same 3oz serving has well over 100% of the recommended daily intake.  But if you’ve been unable to acquire a taste for the canned version of these swimmingly healthy fish, the fresh variety are worth giving a second look.  After all, sardines are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly (one might say they’re like the bunnies of the marine world), making them a very sustainable fish option in a sea (literally) of overfished and endangered seafood options.  Being low on the food chain also means being low in mercury and PCBs, which makes sardines an especially smart choice for pregnant women looking to meet their recommended fish intake goals to support brain development in their bundles of gestating joy.  

Sadly, the USDA does not publish nutrition data for fresh sardines, and I don’t quite trust the random data floating around the internet, so it’s probably safe to assume that fresh sardines more or less compare to canned on the Vitamin D and omega-3 front (perhaps slightly less, since you’ll be removing the skin, where many of the fish oils are stored), but will have considerably less calcium since you’ll be removing the bones before eating.  Ready to give them a try?

 

Cook the sardines until the skins are black and charred

When the skin is blackened and bubbled over about 50% of its surface, it's time to eat!

 

 

How to make Portuguese Sardinhas Assadas

I’ll admit that I’m a relative latecomer to the world of grilled sardines, so I consulted my friend Peter (of Morel mushroom-hunting fame) so that we could all benefit from his vast sardine-grilling experience. His recipe and sardine-grilling tips follow below.  

Buy fresh sardines.  Here in the New York area, Whole Foods sells them, and you can buy them pre-gutted.  (Chances are, you’ll encounter wild-caught sardines from the Pacific Northwest, which the Monterrey Bay Aquarium deems to be a ‘best choice’ from both a health and sustainability standpoint.)  If you’re planning to grill them, leave intact the skin, scales, heads and tails. (You will easily deal with this when the fish is cooked and on your plate.)  You can also buy frozen sardines, in which case you would thaw them before proceeding. Peter says to plan on about 6 fish per person, but it will vary widely by fish size and appetite size.

Sprinkle the fish with coarse salt and rub on some olive oil. Lay the fish out on a piping hot grill.  (The fire/heat should be hot enough to give their skin a good char quickly enough such that the fish don’t dry out.)  Peter recommends grilling the fish for around 5 minutes before flipping, and further suggests that we not be afraid to give our fish a good char. Most of the recipes online, he laments, show sardines not nearly grilled enough for his taste.  For a visual guide, see the photo above; those fish are just about done.  When they have an even char on their skin, they are ready to eat.

Next: Remove the sardines from the grill and peel the charred top skin off.  Insert a knife along the backbone near the tail and work the top fillet off the bones. Remove the top fillet and set it next to your roasted pepper salad (more about that later). Next, insert your knife under the backbone, grab hold of the tail, and separate the  tail, bones and head in one peeling motion away from the bottom filet.  You will be left with a head, bones and tail that remind you of the cartoon fish from Tom & Jerry when you were a kid.  

Finally, eat the filets. You will smile. Traditionally, Portuguese sardines are served with a roasted green pepper salad.  To do as the locals do, Peter recommends placing green peppers on the fire until the skin turns black and bubbles over the whole pepper. When they are well roasted and cooled, skin and seed them under running water, slice the peppers up, then toss with sea salt and some sliced sauteed onion.  Dress with a simple dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and  pinch of thyme dressing.  And if you’re looking for a nice white wine to pair them with, might I suggest a New York State chardonnay?  And don’t forget drink a toast to my friend for the fantastic sardine tutorial.  (Obrigado, Peter!)

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