Feb 5 2015

Mike Hale, The Grub Hunter: Don’t slam the sardine

EP-150209946Smaller fish such as sardines and herring are less vulnerable to pollutants. (Bob Fila — Chicago Tribune file)

By Mike Hale, Monterey Herald

I live for Sardine Tuesdays, those rare occasions when Local Catch Monterey Bay offends some of its members by highlighting those small, oily “trash” fish that belong on the end of a hook — not in a fry pan fouling the air within two square blocks.

The sign-out sheet at my pickup location always includes more than a few persuasive scribbles from disappointed members urging someone — anyone — to take their share.

I always oblige. Then I tote home my double dose of sardines — meeting the cold glare of my fish-phobe wife and the delirious purr of our rotund Sopa, who creates a happy tangle of orange fur around my ankles.

Sardines and other small fish at the bottom of the food chain (herring, mackerel, smelt, anchovies) often end up in pet food, but in the right hands they are a tasty, healthful addition to the human diet (a fact ridiculously obvious anywhere outside our Fast Food Nation).

When Local Catch offers the smaller-sized sardines as it did last week, I prepare my home for a massive fish fry by opening my kitchen windows. It’s a simple process: I liberally season the cleaned, headless sardines before dredging them in flour and frying them in vegetable oil. After a spritzing of lemon juice, I hold these crispy beauties by the tail and eat them whole (the tiny bones practically dissolve upon cooking).

If that seems like a lot of trouble, order them out. Oddly enough, the former Sardine Capital of the World has traditionally boasted very few restaurants that serve these undervalued and underutilized fish (and believe it or not, the Sardine Factory has never served sardines).

But the tide is turning. Heading to Fisherman’s Wharf provides options: Domenico’s offers a fried anchovy appetizer and olive-oil marinated, grilled local sardines served with a Sicilian salsa; Abalonetti Bar & Grill grills its local sardines, topped with a spicy marinara. Off the pier: Crystal Fish in Monterey serves a fine sardine sushi; Lokal in Carmel Valley often adds to its menu tasty sardine sandwiches called bocadillos, slathering the bread with a pungent mojito aioli; jeninni kitchen + wine bar in Pacific Grove rolls out bruschetta with anchovies; and Mundaka in Carmel right now offers Spanish mackerel escabeche, a method where the fish is cooked before pickled.

Boats are pulling Spanish mackerel out of the bay now, and Mundaka chef Brandon Miller seasons them with fennel, black pepper and cumin before roasting. He then sautés vegetables, adding water and vinegar to create a pickling liquid he pours over the fish.

When smelt are running in San Francisco Bay, Miller will source them from his hometown and serve what he calls “fries with eyes.” He dredges the whole smelt in flour and deep-fries until crispy, serving them with a side of squid ink aioli.

“You can’t just eat all the big fish, because there is only so many of them in the ocean,” he said. “I like to target these little fish. They are delicious and really good for you.”

Cardiologists light up at the subject. Sardines and their brethren are full of heart-healthy omega-3s, and not full of toxins (such as mercury) that can build up in large fish such as tuna. They are also chock-full of fat-fighting compounds that help stabilize blood sugar, and rich in coenzyme Q10, vitamin B12, selenium, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D.

Without a doubt, sardines are stinky, slimy, slippery and seemingly indigestible. But look closer, climb down the food chain and give them a try anyway. Open the windows, put on a pot of boiling vinegar and cause a stink.

Read the original post MontereyHerald.com.

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