Why It Works
- A well-crafted marinade prevents sardines from tasting too fishy.
- Sardines can be cooked many ways, try pan-fried, grilled, or broiled.
I like sardines straight from the can, slapped on a piece of bread so all the fishy oils sink into the bread and the flesh smears and flattens just so. I like that the bones on very small sardines are soft enough to be eaten along with the fish. A couple of fillets make for an instant meal if the bread is good and the fish is firm and un-mealy.
Purely anecdotal research tells me that people still harbor a prejudice against canned sardines, or even canned oily seafood as a whole. Like mackerel, sardine flesh is dense, rich and oily.
But fresh sardines are another matter. Their taste is unmistakably sardine-esque, yet toned down for a wider audience. Cooked properly so that the flesh has only begun to flake, it's tender and not very fishy at all. If you can get sardines that are very fresh, the easiest thing to do is grill or broil them so the skin chars a little. Sprinkle with salt, freshly ground pepper, and lemon or vinegar.
If, however, you find that fresh sardines are still too fishy for your taste, consider a simple marinade. I use ginger to combat the fishiness, a little wine for depth, soy sauce, and a dash of salt and sugar. Other things you could throw into the marinade: a splash of vinegar, lemon, lemongrass, chile peppers, shallots, and garlic. The marinade not only brines and preserves the fish, it acts as a palliative for the worst of the fishiness. I would even serve this to a sworn sardine-hater.
You'll find fresh sardines at Japanese, Korean, and Chinese markets. (Also, check at other fishmongers who understand that some humans enjoy eating smelt and baitfish.) The sardines will be no more than four or five inches in length, but that gives you plenty of meat and the skeleton comes right off once you've eaten a side.
Sardines are often sold without being eviscerated, though the fish are so small that it's just a matter of reaching in and gently pulling out the slip of viscera inside. Once marinated, they may be broiled, grilled, or pan-fried in minutes.
- About a dozen sardines, or three per portion, cleaned and gutted
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1/4 cup rice wine
- One 2-inch piece of ginger, washed and thinly sliced
- Olive oil, for broiling
- Sections of lemon, for squeezing over the fish
Blot sardines on paper towels to remove excess moisture.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine salt, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger. Line up sardines on a platter and pour marinade on top, distributing liquid evenly. Cover platter with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to one day.
When ready to serve, turn on broiler and pat fish dry with paper towels. Line fish on a pan or skillet. Drizzle olive oil over skins. Broil until skins are lightly brown and flesh has just begun to flake, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from broiler and squeeze on lemon juice, if desired. Serve immediately.