My mom grew up in the 40s and 50s camping in Yosemite where she dined on my grandfather's version of a sardine sandwich: a Ritz cracker with a slice of cheddar, a lump of sardine packed in mustard, and a bit of dill pickle on top.
Sixty years later, there aren't many fish left that we can eat without feeling like we're destroying the environment or poisoning ourselves with mercury, but the sardine is still a great choice. Populations are flourishing and sardine-catching practices cause very little damage to the ocean environment and haul very little by-catch. Plus, since sardines are teeny tiny, they are nowhere near the mercury absorbing end of the food-chain.
Sardines available in the US are usually either fresh Pacific sardines or canned Pacific, Spanish or Portuguese sardines. Both fresh and canned are inexpensive, and nutrition-wise sardines are also pretty great. They have lots of protein, calcium, vitamins D and B12, niacin, phosphorus, selenium plus those desired omega-3 fatty acids.
They can be broiled, grilled or pan-fried. I love them on salads, so after a Greek-inspired sardine salad concoction at a neighborhood eatery last week, I came up with my own version.
The recipe below assumes the cook is using canned sardines, usually head- and gut-free. If you are lucky enough to have access to fresh sardines, someone will have to clean and gut them. If you're squeamish, your fishmonger can help with that.
Sardine Salad with Chickpeas and Feta
18 sardine fillets 1/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons flour 1 tablespoon finely ground cornmeal (or substitute equal amount flour) 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 1/2 cups (1 16-ounce can) chickpeas, drained 2/3 cup diced, seeded cucumber 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese 1/2 cup pitted and sliced black olives Zest and juice of 1 medium lemon 1 tablespoon chopped mint leaves 1 tablespoon chopped chives
Carefully lay sardine fillets out on a towel and pat dry. Make coating by combining flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika and cayenne. Set aside.
In a medium bowl stir together chickpeas, cucumber, feta, olives, lemon zest and juice, mint and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Arrange equal parts of salad base on six plates.
Dredge sardines through flour mixture and set aside, ready to be fried. Heat remaining olive oil over medium heat in a fry-pan large enough to accommodate the sardines in one or two batches. When barely smoking, carefully lay in sardines, working in two batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Sizzle fish in oil about 30 seconds on each side then carefully transfer back to dry towel to drain.
Stack three fillets on top of each salad and sprinkle with a pinch of chopped chives and a few cracks of black pepper.
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