A Fish Story

The little fish with the big flavor, sardines are making a comeback. And several local eateries are jumping on the bandwagon.



A Fish Story

 

So you think sardines are an old-fashioned fish that only your grandparents could love? Think again. Top chefs around our region — and the country — are fascinating foodies by serving up the silvery sea critter once again  

 

BY RACHEL ELLNER

 

 

They sit on your shelf for years. Those flat little oval cans — covered in colorful, crinkly labels with folksy drawings of mermaids and fishermen — fill you with nostalgia. Every now and again you consider opening one for yourself. Their contents are supposed to be darned good for you, a great source of calcium and healthy fish oils. But let’s face it, more often than not, they become an extravagant treat for your cat.

 

Once upon a time, sardines had class. The little fish, packed like silvery wind-up toys in their pretty cans, were the rage decades before Cannery Row, John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel set in a Depression-era sardine factory, brought the industry to life for the masses. From 1858 to 1871, so many people insisted on buying the best brands, in the best oils, that the U.S. imported $12 million worth of sardines and anchovies (that’s more than $2 billion in today’s economy), almost all of it from France. In fact, so fashionable were canned sardines at one point that special china was designed for the placement of the tins to show off the labels.

 

But in recent years, the silvery fish has not exactly been in high demand. What happened to our love of sardines? Are sardines relics of a bygone era?

 

Maybe not. The gustatory tide seems to be turning in favor of these mini sea critters. Suddenly, the foodies who know about fresh sardines and the best brands of canned fish are no longer such a secret society. Several local chefs — including Barbara Bogart of Locust Tree Restaurant in New Paltz, Graziano Tecchio of Downtown Café in Kingston and Rui Correia of Oporto in Hartsdale — have let the cat (or fish) out of the bag. “Sardines have taken off,” says Bogart, who offers up a signature dish of wood-grilled sardines atop potato salad. “There are some old-timers who remember them, and the younger generation is getting more adventuresome. Once they try them, they get excited.” And while most restaurants are using fresh sardines imported from Europe — even Manhattan’s trendy Babbo serves an appetizer of fresh sardines with caramelized fennel and lobster oil — some are even serving up imported canned sardines.

 

Of course, canned sardines have a long history in this country, too. Maine became a major supplier of sardines late in the 19th century. When the Franco-Prussian War interrupted the lucrative sardine trade in the 1870s, New York importer Julius Wolff sought a supply closer to home. The young herring found off the coast of Maine suited his fancy, and in 1875 he opened the nation’s first sardine cannery in Eastport. Five years later, there were 18 more canneries around the state — and the boom was on.

 

You might reason that anyone who can smell the ocean from his or her kitchen window wouldn’t bother with canned fish. But that’s what New England’s coastal residents — and the rest of the country — clamored for. In fact, to this day there’s no such thing among old-time Down Easters as “fresh” sardines. “They’re not sardines until they’re in the can,” says Ronnie Peabody from Jonesport, Maine, whose entire family once worked in the sardine industry.

 

As time went on, however, canned sardines became associated with hard times. Sales boomed during the Great Depression: Tucked three, six, or nine to a can, sardines projected a sense of abundance for immigrants, working people, and hobos alike. The Pacific sardine industry collapsed in the 1940s, due mainly to overfishing. Today, there is only one sardine cannery left in Maine (partially because herring yield a higher price as lobster bait).

 

But Maine’s loss has left the door wide open for the import of excellent sardines from Europe, and companies in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco have emerged as major players. But what exactly constitutes a true sardine? International trade standards allow for 21 small fish species from abroad, while in the U.S. sardines remain strictly herring.

 

“It’s a tangled web of fish out there,” says Steven Kraus, general manager of Gadaleto’s Seafood Market and Restaurant in New Paltz. Kraus sells primarily Portuguese sardines, which he believes are the true sardine, named for their Sardinian origins. “We’ve seen an increase in interest in fresh sardines,” he says. “Both chefs and regular people are asking for them.”

 

 

For many here in the U.S., Europe’s fresh sardines are a newfound treat. “Many Americans, if they didn’t have any European influence in their lives, go ‘ewww’ at first,” says Bogart. “I wasn’t sure what would happen. I always put a few so-called bizarre things on my menu. Sardines, interestingly enough, have really caught on. Those who have traveled to Europe say the sardines taste just as good, if not better, here.”

 

In Spain and Italy, sardines frequently appear as appetizers on the menu. But to the Portuguese, they are more than nibbling food. “We make a feast of them,”says Rui Correia, who lived in Oporto, Portugal, until he was nine years old (when he moved with his family to Yonkers). Fresh sardines have long been available in Portuguese and Italian enclaves. “We throw them on the grill the way you would cook hamburgers and hot dogs,” says Correia, noting that they are frequently served as an entrée with a roasted onion and pepper salad.

 

At Oporto, Correia abides by a ritual that has become the basis of his signature dish: After cleaning the sardines, he places them on rock salt for several hours. This draws out the moisture, giving the sardines a firmer texture. “We shake off the salt and throw them on a fire roast. It’s like grilling, but the flames come above the grill and char the fish. Sardines have a lot of natural oil, which creates a smoky mesquite flavor,” he says.

When there’s an absence of fresh sardines, “We make canned sardines into a spread. We put it on top of day-old bread with fresh tomatoes and cooked onions, like a bruschetta.”

 

Tecchio of Downtown Café has been working with sardines for more than 30 years. He offers them from time to time, usually as an appetizer special. “I prepare them in different ways; sometimes grilled, sometimes fried, or marinated,” he says. “And sashimi too, if the sardines are extremely fresh.”

 

While some diners find the flavor too strong for their liking, Tecchio is not one of them. “Fresh sardines are better than canned. Their flavor is much better,” he says. “Sardines are one of the best fish.” 

 

Open-Faced Sardine “Sandwich”

Chef Barbara Bogart

Locust Tree Restaurant, New Paltz

Serves 6

18 fresh sardines, filleted and with skin on uOlive oil u¹/2 cup bread crumbs uZest of 2 lemons u1 cup pine nuts u¹/4 tsp dried red chili flakes u1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped uCoarse sea salt and black pepper u3 lemons, thickly sliced

 

1. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil and lay three of the fillets, skin side down, next to each other. Sprinkle with some of the bread crumbs, lemon zest, pine nuts, dried chili flakes, parsley, salt and pepper. Then lay another three fillets directly over the top, skin side up. Repeat sprinkling the bread crumbs and herbs. This is one portion. Repeat process until you have six “sandwiches.”

2. Drizzle the sandwiches lightly with olive oil and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 6-8 minutes. Serve with lemon slices.

 

 

Cured Sardines

Chef Barbara Bogart Locust Tree Restaurant, New Paltz

Serves 6

Kosher salt  u1¹/2 lbs fresh sardine fillets, with skin on u2¹/2 cups white wine vinegar (plus as needed)  uZest of 2 lemons  u4 cloves garlic, minced  u2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped  u2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped  uSalt and pepper  u5 cups extra virgin olive oil (plus as needed)

 

1. Spread the salt in a ¹/8  -inch layer on a sheet pan. Arrange the sardines in a single layer skin side up, and cover with another layer of salt. Let cure for 10 minutes.

2. Gently brush the salt off the fillets and rinse in cold running water. (The skin is very fragile and will tear with too much handling.) Remove the salt from the sheet pan and line with parchment paper. Arrange the fillets in a single layer skin side up and cover with the vinegar. Cure for 20 minutes.

3. Gently rinse fillets in a large bowl of cold water. Drain them in a single layer on several layers of paper towels, skin side up.

4. Mix together the lemon zest, garlic, and herbs. Sprinkle some of the garlic mixture into a two-quart container, and season with salt and pepper. Arrange a single layer of sardines on top of the mixture; season with salt and pepper. Add enough olive oil to cover and top with a piece of parchment (this makes it easier to remove the sardines from the container). Repeat layering until done.

5. Refrigerate for 48 hours before serving.

Serve with baguette or bruschetta and salad; drizzle with a bit of lemon juice to finish.

 

 

“Good tinned sardines should have the flavor attributes of a good cheese or cured olive oil without an overt fishiness.” So writes Paul Johnson, the founder of the Monterey Fish Market, in his new book, Fish Forever. Gadaleto’s Steven Kraus concurs. He notes that the Portuguese brand Da Morgada is most popular at the New Paltz fish market. Their canned fish comes in four different variations: in olive oil, with a touch of lemon, with chili pepper, or in tomato sauce. “There are still old-school sardines out there,” says Kraus. “But these guys are definitely trying to attract a younger audience.”

 

 

Cold fish: Gadaleto’s Seafood Market in New Paltz sells fresh sardines as well as several canned varieties, most of which are imported from Portugal

 

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