Though most people are familiar only with canned sardines, the fresh ones are an entirely different fish -- small and rich, with a pronounced flavor that’s like a more assertive tuna. With the current passion for big rusticated flavors, it’s no wonder fresh sardines are showing up on so many high-end menus.
There seems to be a pretty general agreement that the best way to cook them is on the grill -- that is the standard preparation in both the Mediterranean and in Japan, the two places that love fresh sardines best. Grilling sardines couldn’t be simpler: Clean them, brush them with oil and cook them over a hot fire or under the broiler. (The best Japanese cook I know says her 100-year-old grandmother attributes her longevity to eating sardines -- without cleaning them. She says the innards add an interesting bitterness. Who’s going to argue?)
Fortunately, there are other ways to fix sardines as well. One popular method is curing them with vinegar, which sets off the rich flavor. In France, this is called escabeche. In Venice, they call it sarde en saor, and it is one of the most popular cicchetti, or finger foods. Almost any little bar you duck into for a glass of wine will have them (kind of like Buffalo chicken wings or pickled eggs here).
I also like sardines that crunch. That is the idea behind these mustardy ones. They’re broiled, but the fish can also be battered and deep-fried. They’re especially good as part of a mixed fry, served with some deep-fried squid and vegetables.
Fresh sardines are hard to find at mainstream groceries. You can usually get them by special order, but go to a Japanese market and you won’t believe your luck. Fresh, locally caught sardines, or iwashi, are almost always priced at less than $2 a pound, which will include five or six fish. Even the bigger and fatter imported Japanese sardines, usually about three to the pound, are frequently less than $4.
This has to be one of the best bargains at the seafood counter.
There is a dark cloud in all this silver lining, though, and that is that fresh sardines are almost always sold in the condition fishmongers refer to as “in the round.” What this seemingly innocuous phrase means is that the fish go straight from the ocean to the market with hardly a pause, including that for cleaning and gutting.
For cooks who are used to fillets, cleaning sardines can be a bit of an education. But if you ever went fishing as a kid, no problem, you’ve done it before and probably with a lot more difficult meat.
The flesh of the sardine is so tender and soft that you could probably do all of the cleaning using a butter knife. But in the interest of time and a neater piece of fish, you’ll probably want to use a paring knife.
Still, there’s not much to it. Begin by laying the fish on a board and making a small cut on the dorsal side 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 these.
Using the same small knife, cut a 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.
With your thumb and forefinger, grasp 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.
Finish the preparation by scraping away the black skin along the ribs 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.
Because their flesh is so soft and oily, sardines tend to go bad pretty quickly (this was one of the reasons the canned fish industry was born). Fortunately, since the fish are sold in the round, judging condition is pretty simple. Look for sardines with bright, clear eyes, firm flesh and no sign of browning inside the gills.
The best sardines look like they came right out of the water, their bodies arched as if they were just interrupted while out taking a swim. Take that as a sign: Buy them fresh and cook them quickly and you’ll never feel closer to the ocean.
Heat one-fourth to one-half inch of canola oil in a heavy skillet until it is hot enough that food sizzles when added. Lightly flour the sardines and fry until lightly browned, about a minute per side. Lift the sardines from the oil and drain them on paper towels. Season with salt.
Drain the oil from the skillet, but don’t wipe it clean. Add the onions and the olive oil and cook over very low heat until the onions wilt and turn golden (not brown). This can take as long as an hour. Stir the onions from time to time.
When the onions are soft and sweet, add the vinegar, wine and bay leaf and increase the heat to medium. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a glaze, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, discard the bay leaf, and stir in the raisins and pine nuts. Cool.
Arrange a layer of sardines skin-side up in the bottom of a small (10 1/2-inch by 6 1/2-inch) baking dish. Cover with half the onions. Repeat, layering the remaining sardines and onions. Pour any liquid that’s left in the pan over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 days before serving.
To serve, spoon the sardines and onions onto toast.
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