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Say Sardine: Part I

It’s fun to catch the last glimpse of summer having a little
Grilled Sardines alfresco party. Succulent, fatty and so-Mediterranean, freshly
grilled sardines taste totally different from canned and are sometimes called ‘’brain
food’’ for their high nutritional value. Sardines are packed with Omega 3,
B-vitamins, selenium, niacin, calcium and many other good things, and, are unbelievably
tasty.

Which is why, their lusty grilled aroma remains as alluring
as ever all along the beaches of, practically, any Mediterranean country (and,
of course, Portugal). Who can ever forget the traditional Malaga’s chiringuito
experience with sardines skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over the drift
wood in an old fishing boat berthed in the sand? Or Lisbon’s favourite open-air
salt-packed sardinhas grelhadas served with a simple potato, tomato and grilled
capsicum salad?
Curiously, my first grilled sardines know-how hails from one
disastrous dim-sum dining experience. The story is actually worth telling. Imagine
a cold winter Sunday morning. You read an article from a major press (La Presse),
which goes: ‘’… you can have tons of delicious treats and a mountain of crisp-fried
sardines at this place for just a few dollars … will make you come back to this
newly opened dim-sum restaurant again and again…’’ Yumm, sounds so attractive!
Sure enough, I go to check out the place. When I arrive the place is packed, so
I park myself between the doors with many others. Next thing I notice, I am
squeezed between people who all have well-spread herpes labialis (cold sore) on their face. I feel threatened. My first
instinct tells me to ‘’FLEE’’, but my perseverance wins so I just cover my face
with the scarf and try not to breeze. I think about the reward I am about to
get – sardines… My turn comes up and I am rushing into a crowded dining hall to
be placed among other sardine lovers. A grim-faced female server stops by my
table, says something in Chinese and hands me down few baskets from her cart. I
ask her if I can have some sardines. The woman gives me the stink eye and
leaves without an answer. I take a bite of the gluey samples in hope that
sardines are coming with the next cart. The slippery-cold bock choy and
dumplings which taste like a cross between radish burp and slime bring me back
to the thought that, perhaps, leaving the place at once was not such a bad
idea. But I am on the mission to get sardines… Another elderly server comes
by and slides down something fried that looks like pig-ear crisp, although can be
a sliced cardboard soaked overnight and deep-fried this morning. I begin to speak
louder and gesticulate to make it clear that I want sardines and I don’t see
them among the dishes served. She answers something in Chinese (again) and
drifts away with her cart leaving me no options but to go look for a manager. I
find him in the steamy kitchen which smells like rotten cabbage and can convert
to a ‘’Day of the Sorcerer’’ movie set in a snap.  He confirms to me that they run out of
sardines (what?!).  More than ‘’a few
dollars’’ short, I leave the place praying not to develop a sore on my lip…  But I am now even more determined to get
bloody sardines. I have two options: I can go high-end (Fereira Café, or
similar) and be treated for sure, OR, I can go to La Mer (the fish market) and buy some fresh
sardines and cook them myself. And since my belly is bloated with crap which La Presse journalist called ‘’delicious
treats’’, and my daily resto budget is gone, I do the latter.  Voilà, with a bit of
patience, garlic, lemon, olive oil and salt I finally succeed to have a
mountain of freshly-roasted sardines for a few dollars indeed. I celebrate this
with Rhapsody in Blue
and a glass of chilled Rosé…
My point is, as long as you can buy two pounds of frozen
sardines at $2.99 (at marche Adonis
, for example), you don’t have to go through my try-&-fail dining experience
and can successfully feed a small army on a budget with some of the following fool-proof
tips. 
Frozen sardines are much easier to clean than fresh: use
your fingers to shave the scale in a bowl of water (I find using the back of the
knife still breaks the tender flesh); slit the underbelly and pull the guts out
while the fish is still half-frozen. Leave the head and tail on or cut them off
if you prefer. For fresh sardines and more elaborate technique of making
sardine butterflied (en papillote), follow these tips. I personally don’t
like to fiddle with that, especially when sardines are to be grilled: the bones
play the major role in developing umami during the cooking process. Here are some of my favorite ways to cook and serve grilled sardines:
International: marinated in lemon/garlic/parsley/olive
oil/salt/pepper sauce for 15-30 minutes, grilled on medium-high for 3 minutes
on each side. Excellent with carrot-leeks side dish.
Portuguese: simple and fast – encrust sardines with
layers of kosher salt; keep in the fridge for an hour or so, then just wash the
salt off, pat dry and throw them on a grill (again, 3 minutes each side). PS:
sardines cooked this way are often not gutted (it is best though to apply this
technique with fresh sardines). Serve with lemon wedges and simple salad of
your choice.
Spanish: in escabeche sauce (mix of olive oil, a bit
of red/white vinegar, garlic and herbs simmered for 10 minutes) splashed over
the grilled sardines and served cool – utterly delicious and well worth trying.
Greek:
wrapped in wine leaves. This is one of my preferred techniques – vine leaf wrap
prevents the fat from burning, helps to manipulate the grill easily and keeps
the sardine flesh moist. Works well on the frying pan too. 
Good tip:
use wilted lettuce or wild grape leaves (popular weed in our backyards, see the
image below), if you don’t have real vine leaves handy. (FYI, you can also make
an awesome sauce for the grilled meat from wild grapes.) Just collect the
biggest wild vine leaves, rinse and simmer them in salted water (2 tablespoons/1
liter) for 5-7 minutes. Drain and let cool before wrapping.
PS: Please do not confuse the
wild grapes though with Menispermum Canadense plant which is poisonous. 

 Simple, healthy and unforgettable!
***
GRILLED SARDINES WRAPPED IN WINE LEAVES
Ingredients:
2 lbs (1 kg) or 12-16 medium to large size
sardines
12-16 vine leaves in brine, washed
1 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced (optional)
1/3 teaspoon fresh or dry thyme, minced (optional)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to
taste
Instructions:
Scale sardines with your fingers under the
running water, gut them and wash. Pat dry and rub the fish with a mix of lemon
juice, olive oil, garlic and herbs, OR just sprinkle with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Wrap sardines individually with vine leaves rinsed from the brine. Preheat the grill to medium-high.
Grill for 3-5 minutes on each side or until flesh flakes well when tested. Serve
with lemon wedges, crusty bread, chilled white or rosé and lotsa napkins. OR, serve grilled
sardines as meze with a shot of ouzo. Enjoy your alfresco!

Potato & Egg Salad

Don’t know what to do with those Easter hard boiled eggs leftovers? Well, if they have been pending in your fridge for no longer than just a few days, here is a quick suggestion about what you can do with them. Four to six Yukon Gold or similar medium-starch boiled potatoes will be plenty for this salad. Mixed with eggs and the right dressing (the star of this salad), it goes well with all kinds of meat and fish. You can make in advance for parties and gatherings or have it for lunch in a humble way, with some tinned sardines on the side.
Due to the dressing, this Potato Egg Salad is little bit lighter than classic Mayonnaise Egg Salad. Secret ingredient? A few spoons of brine from a pickle jar (preferably kosher) to dilute your mayonnaise dressing! A year ago I was watching Rachel Ray’s show on TV where she was making a coleslaw dressing using some of the pickle jar liquid and I figured it was a great way to recycle something of a great flavour, which we usually waste without any hesitation. Especially, when it’s this foggy brine of some quality kosher pickles, which have naturally fermented in. Since that time I have been storing this liquid in bottle and keep in the refrigerator to use in different kinds of salad dressings.
Other ingredients making this little salad a success are: Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, chopped pickle, capers, dry tarragon, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Mixed with mayonnaise and thinly sliced red onion and celery stalks, they make an amazing rustic dressing, that is slightly tangy and light.
 
POTATO & EGG SALAD
Yields: 4 servings
Ingredients:
4-6 potatoes boiled in skin, peeled and cubed
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and cubed
1 small red onion thinly sliced
1 cup thinly sliced celery stalks
1 tablespoon capers
1 pickle cubed
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons pickle brine
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry tarragon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
some chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Instructions:
Peel hard-boiled eggs and chop them (in cubes or slices). Cover potatoes in their skin with water, bring to boil and simmer for about 25-30 minutes or until soft, but not mushy. In the bowl, combine and blend well all the ingredients, except the potatoes, eggs and parsley for dressing. Put aside.
Rinse boiled potatoes in a cold water for a few seconds, peel and cube them while they are still warm. In a big bowl, layer potatoes with cubed eggs and pour the dressing over. Mix and serve immediately or refrigerate until later (or next day). Garnish with chopped parsley if desired.