I was first introduced to the delights of sardine consumption on the bank of western Georgia's Yellow Jacket Creek. I was a towheaded lad of seven at the time, and I was accompanying my grandfather on a fishing expedition.
Grandpa — a farmer and self-educated draftsman — spent his summer evenings angling in the muddy "crick" for whatever would take the bait. And with his expert hand on the pole, all manner of unwary critters — from snapping turtles to speckled catfish — found their way to the family table.
I fished right alongside Grandpa with nowhere near the same amount of luck ... and one evening I asked him why. "It's sardines, son," he said as he pulled a can from the paper sack of vitles that Granny had sent with us. Gramps peeled the container open with its attached key. Then he laid a few of the potent-smelling fish that it contained on a thick slab of heavily buttered homemade bread, rolled the bread up and handed it to me. "Always eat a few of these before you set out in pursuit of any piscatorial prey, and you'll smell so loud the fish'll think you're one of 'em."
Right then and there I swallowed the first of what must now be a million or more of the aromatic fingerlings. And that initial bite launched me on what you might call a "serious study of the sardine."
Did you know, for instance, that the name is most properly applied only to a particular small pilchard of the herring family? But that it's commonly used to designate any of several varieties of small saltwater pilchards, ale wives, herrings, sprats, etc., which have been caught and canned in olive, soy or fish oil ... or — in some cases — even tomato, mustard or other exotic pastes? Or did you know that, in general, the tiniest (and most expensive) sardines are canned by foreign packers ... while the larger (and less costly) ones are packed in Maine?
I tend, these days, to specialize in Maine sardines that I purchase for 20 cents a tin from a railroad salvage store. I also make it my business to steer clear of any of the little critters that are packed in mustard or tomato sauce, since the marinade kinda covers up the good, strong taste of the fish. And also because the soy oil that covers the sardines I buy is an important integral part of the recipes which follow.
Recipes? Yep. Recipes. If you've only eaten your sardines "straight from the can," you don't know what you're missin'. The strongly flavored little fish can add a delightful change of pace to a wide variety of dishes. Here are three of my favorite sardine recipes to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. All are designed to feed two people, and all three can be doubled or tripled without difficulty.
Fried Sardines Recipe
Two 3 3/4 ounce cans of sardines
3/4 cup water
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oil
Drain the oil from two 3 3/4-ounce cans of sardines into a skillet. Then break an egg into a bowl and whip it until the yolk and white are well mixed. At that point add 3/4 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce to the egg and mix everything together. As you continue this mixing, blend in (a little at a time) 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour to form a smooth batter.
OK. Now dredge (very carefully, so they don't fall apart) your fish in some additional flour (so, later on, the batter will stick to them). Then put 1/2 cup of oil (I prefer light sesame) into the frying pan, add the rest of the oil from the sardine can, and heat all the shortening to a moderate temperature. When the oil is hot, dip the sardines in the batter and fry them until they're brown (about 3 minutes per side). If you wish, you can spoon extra batter over each fish before you turn it.
Remove the fried sardines from the skillet, drain and serve 'em with butter and lemon juice. Or sprinkle a little soy sauce over 'em. With corn on the cob and a spicy salad, they're hard to beat!
Sardines on Toast Recipe
Two 3 3/4 ounce cans of sardines
1/4 cup cracker or bread crumbs
2 tbsp butter
3 tsp unbleached flour
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 cup milk
1 tbsp grated cheese
1 tbsp chives, green onions or onion
4 slices of toast
Drain two 3 3/4-ounce cans of sardines into a shallow saucepan. Then roll the fish in 1/4 cup of cracker or bread crumbs, spread them out on a baking sheet, and put them in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven until they're brown. (This will take about 10 minutes and can be done while you're fixing the sauce described below.)
All right. Put 2 tablespoons of butter in the shallow saucepan that contains the oil from the sardine cans and melt the butter over low heat. Then add 3 teaspoons of unbleached flour, mix it thoroughly with the butter and oil, and turn up the heat and cook the mixture for 2 to 3 minutes. At the same time, beat 1/2 cup of yogurt briskly with a fork until it's smooth, then pour the yogurt and 1/2 cup of milk into the pan of butter, oil and flour.
Cook until the mixture starts to thicken (about 5 minutes). Then add 1 heaping tablespoon of grated cheese (Parmesan is best but any strong, hard cheese will do) and 1 tablespoon of chives, green onions or just plain onion (in order of preference). Finally, place the browned sardines on 4 thin slices of toast, and spoon the sauce over them. Mercy, mercy! This is just the dish for lunch on a brisk autumn day!
Curried Sardines Recipe
I was introduced to this recipe by Than Lwin, a Burmese friend, and it has become a once-a-week standard at my house.
One 3 3/4 ounce can of sardines
1 1/2 tbsp sesame or peanut oil
1 clove minced garlic
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 medium onion
1/2 bell pepper
1 diced tomato
1/4 cup water
Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime
Drain the juice from one 3 3/4-ounce tin of sardines into a skillet, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of either sesame or peanut oil, and heat until the liquid sizzles. Then add 1 clove of finely minced garlic and cook until it begins to turn brown (about 15 seconds). Quickly dump in 1 teaspoon (or more, if you can stand it) of curry powder and mix it well with the hot oil. Then add half a medium onion (cut into thin slices), half a bell pepper (cut into thin slices) and 1 diced tomato. Stir-fry the mixture for 2 minutes.
When the frying is completed, pour 1/4 cup of water into the skillet, cover the pan and simmer its contents over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Then break the sardines into chunks, toss them into the pan too and simmer everything for another 2 or 3 minutes (until the sauce in the bottom of the skillet is fairly thick).
That's the time to remove the pan from the heat, stir in the juice of half a lemon or lime and ladle your savory concoction over a mound of hot cooked rice. Yummy! Than tops his curry with finely minced onion that has soaked in Tabasco for a week ... then cools himself down afterwards with a mixture of cold, vinegared vegetables.
So there you have a bit of Japanese (Fried Sardines), French (Sardines on Toast) and Southeast Asian (Curried Sardines) influence on a little saltwater fish that I first discovered on the bank of Georgia's Yellow Jacket Creek.
Try all these "exotic" ideas and see if they can lead you to invent few of your own. Then, just for reverse change of pace, remember my grandpa's secret "recipe" too: Take a few sardines "straight out of the can", roll 'em into a thick slice of freshly buttered homemade bread, grab up the pole and bait, and head out for the nearest river, pond or "crick". The sardines may not help your fishing luck, but you won't be sorry you took 'em along either.