1: Begin by laying the fish on a board and making a
small cut on the back, right behind the head and
straight down through the backbone. Make another
incision on the belly side just behind the front fins.
almost everything about sardines. I like to cook them, I
like to eat them. Heck, when I visit aquariums I even like
to watch them swim around in circles. That’s the only
explanation I can offer for how I found myself standing on a
stage Aug. 31 engaged in a cook-off with one of America’s
final night of this year’s the Taste, Michael Cimarusti
from Providence and I were engaged in what we decided to
call the Great Fish Fight, and the subject was sardines. He
won, of course — I told him at one point it was like me
playing H-O-R-S-E with Kobe Bryant — but I did get to cook
some sardines, so the event wasn’t a total loss on my
whole thing started innocently enough at last year’s Taste
when food blogger Sara O’Donnell (Average Betty) tried to
instigate an argument between Cimarusti and me about who had
the better beard. No vote was taken, but I do think I won by
a landslide as people tend to favor elegance over volume.
she tried to kick up a similar fuss this time around,
Cimarusti — perhaps chastened after last year —
suggested that instead we should have a sardine cook-off.
"Fish-ticuffs" I called it. And, of course, since
the whole thing played out in real time on Twitter, there
was no way I could back down.
first challenge was finding sardines to cook. That proved
harder than expected. Sardines are a notoriously fickle
fish, their population prone to booms and busts.
(Interestingly, some marine biologists — and many
fishermen — have proposed that there is a sardine-anchovy
cycle, with each fish taking dominance over the other for
periods of time.)
good times, sardines are one of the great bargains in the
fish market — usually around $2 a pound. We’re in a down
cycle for sardines, so I was stymied when I tried to sneak
in a little practice beforehand. All my usual suspects,
where sardines have been so plentiful in the past, turned up
dry. I ended up using a sardine-like fish I found at Seafood
City called something like "Roundhead Scad." At
least I got some practice cleaning — and it actually
is a big part of sardine cooking. Unlike most fish you buy
in the market, sardines are always sold in the round and in
their entirety. Cleaning them is not hard, but it is not
like buying the usual fillet. Think of it as the difference
between cutting up a whole chicken and buying a boneless,
sardines react really well to grilling and pair well with
big flavors. When I cook them (and maybe I learned this from
Cimarusti, years ago — I’ll give him credit anyway), I
like to grill them on the skin-side only until the flesh
turns color all the way through. This way the skin crisps up
nicely, a real plus.
as accompaniments, with it being the height of the summer
harvest, I decided to pair them with a salad of tomatoes,
cucumbers and white beans, served with a nice drizzle of a
quickly made pesto.
like a panzanella, but with firm beans instead of tender
opted for another of my favorite sardine dishes, the
Sicilian classic pasta con le sarde — sardines mixed with
spaghetti, wild fennel fronds and bread crumbs. And he
knocked it out of the park.
judges — KCRW "Good Food" host Evan Kleiman and
our own Jonathan Gold — were kind, but it was clear that
this was a perfect example of the difference between a good
home cook’s dish and what a master chef like Cimarusti can
all was not lost — I did get what I think of as my Little
League "hardest-trier" award. Afterward Cimarusti
gave me all the leftover sardines we hadn’t cooked.
following night, I grilled them. Defeat has never tasted so
CLEAN AND FILLET
sardines isn’t difficult if you follow a few simple steps.
After you’ve done a couple of them, it should take no more
than a minute.
by laying the fish on a board and making a small cut on the
back, right behind the head and straight down through the
backbone. Make another incision on the belly side just
behind the front fins. Holding the fish under running water,
gently twist the head from the body. If you do this right,
most of the innards will come away with the head. Discard
slit the length of the belly and rinse out the inside. Lay
the fish on its back on the cutting board and make two
shallow parallel cuts the length of the backbone. You’ll
want to be careful not to cut all the way through the meat.
the exposed backbone near the tail and pull up, using the
fingers of your other hand to hold the meat in place. The
backbone and larger ribs should lift cleanly away, leaving
you a neatly butterflied fish.
cleaning by scraping away the black skin along the belly and
cutting away the rib endings on either side. There will
still be some bones left, but these will be so fine they won’t
be a problem. Do check to make sure all of the bones around
the collar of the fish are gone. Finally, square up the top
to make a neat double-fillet.
sardines with white bean salad and pesto
minutes. Serves 4 to 6
clove garlic, minced
teaspoon crushed red pepper
of 1 lemon, divided
and freshly ground black pepper
pounds fresh sardines, cleaned
(15-ounce) cans cannellini or other white bean
cherry or grape tomatoes, preferably various colors
tablespoons minced red onion
bowl, whisk together one-fourth cup olive oil with minced
garlic, crushed red pepper and the juice of one-half lemon.
Lightly salt both sides of each sardine, and then brush both
sides with the olive oil mixture. Set aside.
both cans of beans into a strainer and rinse under running
water until the water runs clear. Set aside to drain
each of the tomatoes in half and place in a large work bowl.
Trim the ends of the cucumbers, cut in lengthwise quarters
and then in one-half-inch pieces, and add these to the
tomatoes. Add the red onion, the drained white beans and
one-fourth cup olive oil and stir gently to mix well. Season
to taste with salt and black pepper.
make the pesto, drop the garlic cloves through the feed tube
of a running food processor or blender and mince until fine.
Turn the machine off and add the basil leaves. With the
machine running, slowly pour two-thirds cup olive oil
through the food tube to make a smooth flowing sauce. Season
to taste with salt.
grill or a stove-top grill pan over medium heat until hot.
Shake any excess olive oil mixture from the fish before
grilling. Brush the grill pan with olive oil and place the
sardines on the grill skin-side down and cook on one side
only until the color has changed all the way through, 5 to 7
minutes. Reduce the heat as needed if the fish begins to
darken too quickly before it cooks through, and cover the
pan with a lid to concentrate the heat if the fish cooks too
the sardines are done, squeeze over the remaining half lemon
on the flesh side.
the white bean salad evenly among four to six plates.
Arrange the sardines on top, skin-side up. Spoon pesto in a
ribbon over the sardines and salad and serve immediately.
OF 6 SERVINGS
fat 8 g