Americans aren’t used to eating fresh sardines and anchovies, which is a shame. The difference between a fresh sardine or anchovy and their canned equivalents is literally night and day.
In the Philippines, where I was born, tawilis is the name given to a freshwater sardine commonly found within the waters of Taal Lake in Batangas province on the island of Luzon. They are frequently a staple on restaurant menus and have a delicate, subtle flavor. However, due to a combination of various factors — overfishing and a population explosion being two of the primary causes, tawilis are now on the list of endangered species. Whether they will remain a viable fish food remains to be seen as the population of the Philippines increases.
Within the United States, consumers have the choice of Atlantic sardines or Pacific sardines. The latter are the most desirable option since they’re abundant and well-managed, unlike their Atlantic brethren, whose population continues to decline due to ineffective management and overfishing.
In most parts of the United States, fresh sardines are admittedly difficult to find. Ask your fishmonger to order some.
Sardines, mesclun, heirloom potatoes
Preparation for this dish will take a little over two days, but the results are well-worth the wait.
2 lbs. fresh sardines, cleaned and filleted
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cups olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
4 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
a pinch of dried red pepper flakes
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
1 large onion, peeled, trimmed and finely diced
2 generous tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 cup washed mixed greens or mesclun
1 lb. heirloom fingerling potatoes such as Russian Banana, peeled and steamed, then lightly fried in olive oil and seasoned with sea salt, to taste
Have your fishmonger clean and fillet the sardines, and remove the scales, unless you want to try it yourself.
To remove the scales — Fill your kitchen sink with cold water. You can either use your hands, the edge of a tablespoon or a small paring knife. Run your fingers against the grain or the way the scales lay. Start at the tail and scrape towards the head while holding the sardine underwater. Once done, run your hands over the fish again to make sure you didn’t miss any scales; repeat the previous step to remove those that you might have missed during the first try.
To gut and fillet the fish yourself — Using a sharp knife, slit the sardine open along the belly, and with a spoon, remove the innards. There will be about a teaspoon of fish guts. Cut off the heads (this is a purely aesthetic issue), then pry the fish open. Catch the end of the tail bone under the tip of the knife and pull up. This is easiest done under cold running water in your kitchen sink. Cut out the fin, which is in the back. Alternately, you can leave the sardines relatively intact and simply remove the innards. The sardines in the picture above were not filleted. Whichever version is up to you, but it won’t affect the taste however.
Wash the fillets and, if you have time, marinate them in lemon juice for up to 24 hours. If you don’t have that much time, one or two hours is all right.
Gently remove the sardines from the lemon juice and pat them dry with a paper towel. They will be “cooked” from their long citrus bath and will break or flake easily. In a Pyrex baking dish large enough to hold all the sardines, combine the olive oil, parsley, oregano, red pepper flakes, sea salt, black pepper and onion. Add the sardines, making sure that they are all completely submerged in the oil. Let them marinate for at least an hour, or preferably anywhere from 8 to 12 hours.
You can eat the sardines like this, on a slice of lightly toasted semolina bread or Italian bread with a basic tomato, parsley and onion salad (1 tomato, coarsely diced; 1 small onion, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped; sea salt and black pepper, to taste; chopped parsley); they are delicious.
Marinated sardines, semolina bread, tomato and onion salad
Or you can remove the sardines from the olive oil and lay them out in a roasting pan. Sprinkle them with breadcrumbs, and broil them at 350 F for 5 to 6 minutes or until the fish is golden brown. Serve them on a bed of mixed greens or mesclun, garnished with the heirloom potatoes.
Time: About 15 minutes (includes prep for the potatoes and salad greens) but does NOT count the time spent marinating the sardines.