Monday, April 14, 2014

Monterey Sardines

Should I feel guilty about sardines? I didn't even think twice when I saw them fresh at the fish market. A rare treat high in omega 3 fatty acids (higher than just about any other food and also high in vitamin D), a small fish that retains less of the toxins tragically found in our oceans and are quick to reproduce. It's so rare to see them fresh. I snapped them up for dinner.
Sardines made the once sleepy town of Monterey, CA into a bustling fishing center. Demand from two world wars brought the industry to it's peak and it's eventual collapse. The area was fished out by massive numbers pulled form the sea and what scientists now know is a cyclical pattern (seems like 40 years) of abundance that shifts between anchovies (the other competitor for plankton in the area) and the iconic sardine of Steinbeck's cannery row.
Higher quotas are in effect to try and preserve the catch, but evidence on the sea floor points to cycles of heavy and scarce populations daring back to the 1800's before commercial fishing and big nets came to the area.
Science to study, but for now I have fish to clean.
We're not big fish eaters so I knew an oily, strong tasting fish would be a hard sell. To cut through some of the oil and allow the clean fish flavor to come through I brined the fish (as I saw described in this month's Bon Appetit magazine). I rubbed kosher salt inside the cavity and laid the fish on a sheet pan with 1/4" layer of kosher salt and covered them with another 1/4" of salt. The fish rested in the salt for 5 minutes. Then I rinsed the fish and allowed them to soak in unseasoned rice wine vinegar for another 5 minutes. I rinsed the fish again and patted them dry, rubbed olive oil salt and pepper on the skin and placed them in a hot iron pan, also coated with a slick of olive oil. While the sardines cooked on one side I mixed a heaping tablespoon harissa, the North african condiment that's become one of my favorite flavors recently, the juice of 1/2 lemon and a glug (as Jamie Oliver who inspired this dinner would say) of olive oil. I brushed the mixture on the fish, flipped them in the pan and brushed the cooked skin.
Following Oliver's lead for a side -- though I found no couscous in the cupboard -- I cooked quinoa and mixed in lemon juice, chopped scallions, mint, and feta cheese. The leftover harissa mixture topped greek yogurt for a bright, cooling flavor to lighten the strong tasting fish.
Something different, not for everyday. Everybody has a quota for sardines.

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