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, w
ith 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:
: 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.
: 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
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
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!