Canned are grand, but fresh sardines are deliciously simple

Fresh sardines are delightful and well worth knowing. For an extra flourish, cook them on large fig leaves. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Serve grilled sardines with a shaved fennel salad. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Consider the sardine. The name alone evokes a crowded subway car ("packed in like sardines"), saltine crackers or, if you are me, a lip-smacking treat.

The sight of sardines in an opened can, pressed together tightly and cleverly layered, is actually quite beautiful. If you are a fan, a portable lunch of tinned sardines and crackers is a fine thing. Some, however, prefer a canned-sardine sandwich, whether on white bread with mayonnaise and onions, on toasted buttered brown bread or open-faced on rye with lettuce and tomato.

In France, vintage sardines aged in the can are a phenomenon, presented like wine with the year they were preserved.

High-end canned sardines are also enjoyed in Spain, whether in olive oil or tomato sauce, or smoked.

Fresh sardines are delightful and well worth knowing. Many Sicilian recipes employ them - they can be found as marinated raw fillets, fried or tossed in pasta with wild fennel.

Grilled fresh sardines are often offered on restaurant menus throughout the Mediterranean and, increasingly, here in the United States. But it is very easy and less expensive to grill them at home, whether over hot coals or under the broiler.

At the fishmonger, look for firm, shiny, glistening specimens and ask to have them cleaned and scaled. Then it is a simple matter of seasoning them with salt and pepper and a lick of olive oil. They take no more than two minutes a side to cook and need only a lemon wedge for accompaniment. But a little thinly sliced fennel, a pile of arugula or a tomato salad would not be unwelcome.

For an extra flourish, it is fun to cook sardines (any fish, really) on large fig leaves. After cooking the sardines on one side, simply lay the leaves on the grill and place two fish, cooked side up, on top of each leaf to finish cooking. As well as being attractive, the leaves add a subtle fruity perfume when they hit the heat.

Fresh sardines are also touted as a sustainable fish choice, preferable to larger fish that are higher on the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, which are overfished and have high mercury levels.

Currently, sardines from the Pacific are recommended, available year-round, although there are occasional hiatuses in fishing to allow stocks to replenish.

Sardines are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals too. Most important, they are extremely delicious.

Sardines for the grill, with fennel, fig leaves and parsley. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Simple Grilled Sardines

8 fresh sardines (about 700g), cleaned and scaled
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and very finely sliced
Lemon wedges
2 Tbs chopped parsley, for garnish

1. Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or stovetop grill pan, or light the broiler.
2. Season sardines inside and out with salt and pepper and coat both sides lightly with olive oil.
3. Lay sardines on the grill and cook them on one side for about two minutes, until nicely browned. Carefully flip sardines and cook for about two minutes more, until just done.
4. Transfer each portion to individual plates. Put the sliced fennel in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Dress with about 2 Tbs olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Place a pile of dressed fennel evenly on each plate. Serve with lemon wedges and a sprinkle of parsley.

Serves four

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