I love the idea of simple grilled seafood with unfussy sides for an easy summer dinner. I also love whole fish, with its crispy skin and meltingly soft filets. To me, it is the essence of fish. I recently found some beautiful fresh sardines at the grocer, and I had to have them. They sat on ice in the case, shining silver with clear eyes looking out at me, practically begging me to bring them home and eat them up.
And yet...I hesitated. Truth be told, I did not want to clean them. I firmly believe that if you are going to eat meat and seafood, you should recognize where it comes from, which is why I try to only buy responsibly raised meat and seafood. However, that does not mean that I have to relish touching them. Sure, I could have asked the fish monger to clean them, but there was a long line and to be honest, he looked like it could have been his first day. Instead I hounded him with questions, half-hoping that the fish wouldn’t meet my standards so I wouldn't have to touch them after all.
Me: Are these very fresh?
Him: Yes, we just got them in today.
Me: But when were they caught?
Him: Two or three days ago in Portugal, then sent directly here.
Me: Can I smell them?
Me: They smell fresh, like the ocean. Have you had any of them?
Him: Yes, I've had sardines before.
Me: But not these particular sardines?
At this point I knew they were as fresh as I could hope for, and that if I didn't commit to buying them soon I would be chased out of the crowded store, so I made my order and was on my way.
I did have to be a bit brave to clean them at first, but after I started it was pretty painless, and I was able to let my mind wander to how I would prepare them. I wanted to serve them simply, balancing their rich oiliness while highlighting their freshness. I thought a lemon vinaigrette with herbs would be lovely, and it would double as a dressing for a simple green salad. I had a tomato and extra lemon on hand, and thought they'd make the perfect plate with a thick slice of grilled sourdough bread.
It did turn out to be a beautiful plate. The fish tasted of the ocean and of the smoky grill and were quite delicious. The lemon and herbs enhanced their freshness, and also were delicious with the tomato. This is such a simple, beautiful dinner, and is heavenly at an outdoors table with a cold, crisp white wine.
If you are timid about sardines, this is a good way to try them out. These are a far cry from the over salted tinned sardines you may have had before.
This recipe serves two, and leaves plenty of dressing if you want to increase it or serve it with a green salad.
Grilled Sardines with Accoutrements
4 medium, very fresh whole sardines
1 large tomato, halved
¼ cup mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme, oregano and basil
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, plus more for grilling
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 thick slices of sourdough bread
Fresh Ground Black Pepper, to taste
Clean and debone sardines; hold the tails firmly, then slice in a clean line from tail to head. Remove insides, and rinse under cold water if necessary. Holding the tail end firmly, pull up on the spine and lift away from the flesh, removing backbone and ribs. Some tiny bones will remain, but they will melt when cooked and you won't notice them at all. If desired, remove the head and tail and leave in filets.
Zest and juice one lemon into a jar. Add mustard, honey, vinegar and salt and pepper. Shake to combine, then add olive oil and shake again. Taste, and reseason to your preference if necessary. Add half of the herbs and set aside.
Preheat grill or grill pan to medium high. Brush the fish, bread, tomato and the remaining lemon (halved) with olive oil on both sides. Season with salt and pepper. Place the tomato and lemon, cut side down, on the grill along with the fish. Turn when there are pretty grill marks on each item, probably about 2 minutes per side, depending on your heat. Grill another minute or so on the other side.
Serve half of the fish with a tomato half, grilled bread and grilled lemon, squeezing the lemon over the fish and tomato. Sprinkle with the remaining herbs.