All About Cooking with Fresh Sardines

Sardines in a bowl
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Sardines are Sustainable, Delicious, and Good for You:

Sardines -- I'm talking the fresh kind, not canned -- are one of Nature's great gifts. They are plentiful on both coasts, inexpensive, loaded with the omega-3 fatty acids health officials are crowing about, and they are absolutely delicious.

Sardines are a small schooling fish that roam the open oceans eating plankton and small crustaceans. They are in turn eaten by, well, just about everything.

Including people.

You are probably most familiar with canned sardines, and they are an excellent product when well made. I eat canned sardines mostly in winter, and fresh ones in warm weather.

Finding fresh sardines is a good reason to drop everything and call all your friends. Sardines rot faster than almost any other fish -- it's all those omega-3s -- so buy a bunch and eat them the day you find them, because you never know when you'll see fresh sardines at the market again.

Another reason for urgency is that sardines do not freeze well. The oils in them turn rancid even in a freezer, and the flesh becomes a mushy mess when thawed. My advice: Never freeze fresh sardines.

Look for sardines that are clean-smelling and whole. Try to avoid bruised fish, and definitely avoid any fish with "belly burn," a condition where the belly is broken and the guts are starting to come out. This is a sign of an old fish, suitable only for salting down.

What do you do with them? Why - grill them, of course. Wrapped in grape or fig leaves, grilled over charcoal with olive oil and lemon, fresh sardines outshine pretty much any other seafood in my book.

But you do have to deal with the bones. The best way to do this is to split or butterfly your sardines (instructions on how to do this are linked below).

Do this and you will only have a few gossamer bones remaining, and they are soft enough to eat safely.

You can also fillet fresh sardines and marinate them in salt, olive oil, and lemon juice to make a Mediterranean version of ceviche. This is a common way to serve sardines in Greece, Spain, and Italy.

Fresh sardines are also good filleted and baked. They go well with full-flavored sauces, especially tomato sauces. Spicy, citrusy salsas also work well.

But the bottom line is this: If you find truly fresh sardines, simplicity is the key. Enjoy the rich flavor of the fish with little more than salt, lemon, and a little olive oil.