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The Sardine's Big Comeback: Why This Lowly Little Fish Should Be at the Top of Your Shopping List

Wild seafood is wrought with environmental, ethical, economic, and health implications. But the sardine poses a solution to each of these problems.

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If you want to marinate sardines, simple is better, like lemon, olive oil, and parsley. And I highly recommend grilling them outdoors afterwards, rather than cooking them inside the house. Grilled sardines are magnificent, and it keeps the fishy flavors out of your curtains.  

In many Mediterranean countries fresh sardines are commonly breaded and deep-fried, a technique that's both tasty and fool-proof. Sardines cooked this way don't even stink up the house -- unless you splatter grease everywhere.  

Sprinkle your cleaned sardines with salt and pepper, then roll them in flour. Heat an inch or so of olive oil on low in a pan, and when a drop of water draws a splattering response, add the fish. Three minutes per side should do it, although you can cook them longer if you want a browner crisp (at the expense of moist flesh). Fried sardines are typically served with lemon wedges and little else, but the alternatives are many.  

Sardine escabeche consists of fried sardines that are then pickled in vinegar. The dish spread from Spain and Portugal to their colonies, resulting in some interesting permutations. Mexican escabeche refers to pickled jalapenos and carrots. In Brazilian peixe escabeche, fish is fried crispy and then added to a coconut soup. In many places, escabeche simply means "marinade."  

Along those lines, I've had good success mixing fried sardines with Thai green curry, and stuffing them between pieces of bread with pickles and other fixings for a po-boy sandwich. After gorging myself on my last batch of fried sardines, I still had a few left over. I stuck them in a jar of pickled eggs that I had going in the fridge. A few days later, the dilly vinaigrette had permeated the formerly crispy and still oily fish for a phenomenal escabeche. Although the crisp was gone, the fried flavor remained, and perfectly matched the vinegar brine from the egg jar.  

The many possibilities presented by fresh sardines don't mean you should avoid them in cans. And if you do, you might want to go for the brisling varieties from cold, northern waters, and see if you notice their supposed superiority.  

But when going fresh, you can hardly get more local for seafood than California. And when you buy American sardines you can be sure efforts were made to release the bycatch alive, according to Seafood Watch, which ranks sardines a "Best Choice" among seafood options. The Pacific sardine season runs January through August. Look for bright, sturdy, clean fish with clear eyes. Then take them home and rip their heads off.

Author's Note: If you want to learn more about sustainable seafood, check out Slow Fish, a subunit of Slow Food that focuses on sustainable fishing practices, fishing cultures, and fish cookery. The organization's biannual conference is May 27-30 in the coastal city of Genoa, Italy, and boy do I wish I was there. This year's theme is "Small-scale fishers: a threatened species." In addition to educational workshops and seminars directed at fishing industry types, fish lovers, policy makers, and kids, there will be a lot of thoughtful eating going on as well, including a demonstration on how to make sushi from sustainable fish like mackerel, anchovies, and bonito. There will be a fish-filled selection of street foods, workshops on pairing wine with seafood, and many other stimulating events for a-fish-ionados.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

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