When we were living year-round in Italy, we learned the intense focus on #newyearnewyou renewal transcends borders. Come January, appearance-conscious Italians assess la linea (the figure), making necessary corrections to ensure they present una bella figura come beach season. In Puglia as in California, faddish diets and gym memberships experience a post-holiday boom.
Back in California, we’re faced with the same annual compulsion for renewal, but this year, we’re focusing exclusively on local, sustainable food procured in its original state. We have always tried to cultivate relationships with farmers, fisheries and ranchers, but now we’re turning to them exclusively in an effort to dive a little deeper into a local, seasonal economy. We’re lucky to live in a community where this practice is pretty easy: small farms abound and the sea provides a bounty we’d be hard-pressed to duplicate inland. The new protocol means that we’re shunning anything that presents itself with a list of ingredients . . . or even a label.
Ocean2Table, a small business in our California hometown that connects sustainable fisheries with end users through same-day home delivery of local seafood, is just one part of a larger community of local food entrepreneurs we’re proud to support. Started by two young University of California, Santa Cruz grads, this business is doing well by doing some really great things, from promoting local seafood to celebrating local food artisans through seafood pop-up dinners. Part of our own personal new year renewal plan, Ocean2Table has recently reacquainted us with the most humble of finned creatures: the sardine.
As in Puglia, small fish like sardines, smelt and mackerel are a terrific choice, both for sustainability and for a knockout punch of umami in every bite. Known for their hefty Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat benefits, sardines support joint health, inflammation reduction, bone health and blood sugar stabilization. And they’re incredibly inexpensive, so take full advantage when you find them.
Simple is the watchword in fresh sardine preparation, just as it is for their accompaniments. We like them best in a cast iron skillet and served with sautéed, garlicky broccoli rabe and steamed new potatoes, with everything dripping in your best extra virgin olive oil. Stuffed with a lemon slice and a little thyme, sardines are sublime.
Sardine al Forno—Oven-Roasted Sardines
16 fresh (not canned) sardines
16 lemon slices (approx. 1/4 “ thick)
16 thyme sprigs
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
The most time-consuming part of this dish involves cleaning the sardines. If you have a terrific fish supplier, ask them to do it for you, but if you’re stuck with the job, here’s how to do it. Hold each sardine by the tail. Using a paring knife, run the blade towards the head of the fish to remove the scales. Rinse each sardine under cold running water to remove any remaining scales. With the paring knife, slit the sardine’s belly from just below the head to above the tail. Using your thumb, remove all of the dark matter (entrails, et. al.).
Italians stop at this point, preferring to appreciate little fish like this in their entirety. But if you can’t bear the sight of the sardines’ heads on your dinner plate, remove them by gently bending them backward toward the spine. Similarly, if you don’t want to confront tiny sardine bones once the fish is cooked, open the sardines by laying them flat with the skin side down. Grasp the top of the spine and pull up and away from the fillet, dislodging the backbone.
Place a lemon slice and thyme twig inside each sardine’s belly and salt the fish liberally. If you have removed the backbone, place the lemon slice and thyme sprig on top of each filleted fish.
Place a cast iron skillet in the oven and preheat the broiler, making sure the oven shelf is no more than 4” from the broiler. When the broiler is preheated and the pan is very hot, remove it from the oven, pour in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and place the sardines in the pan. Drizzle with another few tablespoons of olive oil and return the skillet to the oven.
Broil for 5-6 minutes (less if you have removed the backbones). Remove the skillet from the oven, baste with the pan juices and serve with more lemon and crusty, homemade bread to sop up the juices.
Serves 6 as an appetizer or 4 as an entrée.