The Sardine's Big Comeback: Why This Lowly Little Fish Should Be at the Top of Your Shopping List
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A seafood meal is the one opportunity most Americans will ever have to eat a wild animal. Given the illegality of selling wild game, only hunters and their lucky friends get to munch the many tasty beasts that roam the boondocks. Eating a wild thing is like walking around on your bare feet. It's exposure to an ecosystem, and a direct connection with the planet. Eating wild fish is like a swim in the ocean, except in this case the ocean swims inside of you.
Unfortunately, wild seafood is wrought with environmental, ethical, economic, and health implications. Many fish stocks are dwindling. And prices, not surprisingly, are climbing. Certain fishing methods are damaging underwater ecosystems and creating bycatch, whereby the wrong fish are caught, and all too often killed. Big carnivorous fish like tuna and swordfish are known to accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals from the many fish, great and small, in their diets.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain, the lowly sardine poses a solution to each of these problems. And all we have to do is eat them.
Sardine is a general term for the young individuals of dozens of species of the clupeid family of fish. Sardines from the North American East Coast are actually small herrings. The most-prized sardines are the brisling species of the North and Baltic seas. Sardina pilchardus, from the Mediterranean, are named after the island Sardinia where the small fish were once particularly abundant. The Pacific sardine fishery was the largest U.S. fishery from the 1920s to the 1940s, when it collapsed.
For most Americans, sardines are practically synonymous with "in a can," but those oily little fish can rise to a whole new level when prepared fresh. Pacific sardine stocks are stronger than they've been in decades, and appear to be on the increase. (Fossil evidence indicates that sardine populations ride a regular boom-and-bust cycle, though overfishing is thought to have expedited the 1940s bust.)
Thanks to the current boom, fresh sardines can be had at two bucks a pound in many stores. But while popular in Europe, freshies remain a niche market in the U.S., and most Pacific sardines are ground into food for farmed fish. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of sardine to make a pound of farmed salmon. Those penned-up, orange-dyed hog fish eat better than we do. Sardines are one of the healthiest fish in the sea.
They feed on photosynthetic plankton, and don't accumulate heavy metals like carnivorous fish do. That diet also helps make sardines rich in omega-3 oils, and they're also rich in protein, good cholesterol, selenium, and -- if you eat the soft bones -- calcium and fluoride.
Cooking with sardines can be tricky, due to their fishy smell. A recent batch that I marinated and then pan-fried resulted in a fishy steam, which carried a very fishy aroma throughout the house. Days later, visitors were still asking if I'd just had fish for dinner.
The first step in cooking sardines is to clean them. If the scales are still present, remove them gently with a knife. Be careful when gutting sardines, as they can be extremely delicate. As with most fish, the heads are edible, but if you're willing to forgo that delicacy you can simply pull the heads off and the guts will come out behind them. To make that job slightly easier with strong-boned sardines, cut the spine below the head. Or leave the spine attached and pull the head forward and down toward the tail, and you can get the spine to come out too, and leaving behind two beautiful flat sardine filets held together by the skin. Rinse thoroughly.