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Why sardines ought to be on Seattle's plate

Eating on the Edge: We think of them as packed in a can, and something to be avoided. But the fish is a big part of the Mediterranean diet, and it's sustainable.
Sardines being cooked over a fire on a beach in Spain

Sardines being cooked over a fire on a beach in Spain glidemax/via Wikimedia Commons

The act of eating seafood these days is as much a responsibility as a pleasure. The last of our foods taken from the wild, some fish are harvested conscientiously, some are not. Many species of fish are in danger of depletion, including the beloved tuna. It and other large fish also contain varying levels of harmful mercury, the result of industrial pollution and naturally occurring processes.

The fish that we farm come with their own problems — they harbor diseases, pollute the environment — the same issues associated with livestock. In this complex calculus of eating healthy and conscionable fish, the perfect fish crop might just be the sleek and humble sardine.

Sardines, the name given to dozens of related species of small, silvery, oily fish, are found in most of the world's oceans but most associated with fisheries in the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans. They are commonly canned, used as bait, and turned into fish meal.

They are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D (rarely found in food unless it is added), and calcium (when their very soft bones are consumed). The fish is a big part of the Mediterranean diet, considered among the world's healthiest and largely responsible for the long life spans, and low rates of obesity and heart disease in that part of the world.

Sardines also contain very low amounts of contaminants like mercury and PCBs since they are small and low on the food chain. According to a study by the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), sardines contain, on average, nearly undetectable amounts of methylmercury, about .016 parts per million.

Fish like shark and swordfish contain about 100 times those concentrations; even fish like halibut, bass, and tuna contain 20 to 40 times those concentrations. Sardines are among the few wild fish to make the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Super Green" list of seafood that is both healthy and sustainably harvested.

Here in the Northwest, we love our seafood and, at least outwardly, professes to care about our relationship to our environment, and the integrity of the food we consume. Sardines, therefore, would seem a natural staple in our diets, but curiously, sardines are just about the most difficult seafood to find on a restaurant menu anywhere. Even fish markets do not sell them. (To be clear, we are talking about fresh sardines, not canned.)

In general, we like our fish big, meaty, mild in flavor, and preferably filleted. We make exceptions for shellfish, which we eat in abundance and in great variety. Few of us, though, love sardines.

One of the few restaurateurs to serve them locally is chef Ethan Stowell, who has opened four celebrated restaurants in Seattle (Tavolata, How To Cook A Wolf, Anchovies & Olives, and the recently shuttered Union). Stowell plans to open his newest restaurant, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, on Ballard Avenue by the end of the month. It and Anchovies & Olives might just be the only places in town where you can reliably expect to find a well-prepared, fresh sardine, salted, grilled over a wood fire, and served whole with a squirt of lemon.

"We’ll order them every week (at Staple & Fancy)," said Stowell, who considers grilled sardines among his favorite dishes. "If they come in, they"ll be on the menu."

Stowell also tries to keep them on the menu at Anchovies & Olives, which served them last week. Demand for the highly perishable sardine (and for that matter all small fish like anchovies and smelt) is growing but modest, Stowell said. Twice a week, he puts in an order for fish (including sardines) from a wholesaler in Boston. East Coast suppliers make it easier for him to find the kinds of atypical fish he serves, like branzino and dorade. Stowell is one of the few chefs who will serve fresh anchovies, another small, full-flavored fish that requires some ultra-creative sourcing.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 15, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I love sardines (and, since you mentioned it, organ meat).

Café Presse's sandwich en baguette with grilled sardines is excellent ($5, 1117 12th Avenue). And Perchè No (1319 N. 49th Street) serves a delicious capellini con sardine for $13. It was having the latter meal one evening last year that got me eating sardines for the first time in years. I now regularly prepare a version of the dish at home.

I am half Korean and half Jewish and so grew up on a steady diet of, among other things, canned mackerel (actually Pacific saury or mackerel pike, apparently) and kippered herring, so this may be why I took so quickly to sardines. They may very well be an acquired taste for others. I am glad to see they're gaining in popularity.

If we can manage to get organ meats back on the menus of establishments that are not diners and don't serve soul food, we'll just need to establish fool (the dessert, not the Egyptian fava bean dish — rhubarb, gooseberry, take your pick) as a staple, and I will truly be in culinary heaven.

Posted Thu, Jul 15, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Great idea, bringing back sardines. Thanks for the tips on where to find them. I hope the sources will get more local.

I do feel I have to speak up for cod and halibut, which are *not* bland if cooked properly (tricky). I had one of the best pieces of halibut in a long while recently at Ivar's; and the best piece of cod ever at the Norway Pavilion in Shanghai at the expo. That piece of cod was a real revelation: it was just so unbelievably fresh and cooked to a perfection. The fish are both improved by lemon and maybe butter, but what fish isn't?

Also, maybe you can help me with a current peeve. is there anyone who smokes Northwest salmon locally who does not use sugar, fake sugar or any sweeteners (syrup, honey)? Once in awhile I'll find a piece of sugar-free smoked salmon, but no regular supply. I had a great piece of smoked halibut up in Sequim recently, and no sugar. It was moist and tasty. Some think sugar is vital to the smoking process, but surely it wasn't essential to Northwest native peoples. Where can a person who limits their intake of sweets find un-sweetened smoked fish?

Posted Thu, Jul 15, 9:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I love all these types of oily fish. My favorite way is with grated daikon and ponzu. Having grown up on Okinawa, I really miss deep-fried and grilled small fish and have always wondered why they weren't eaten here more. Pressed mackerel sushi Kyoto-style is another wonderful dish. Our local smelt, although not anywhere as oily, is wonderful when butterflied, cured with a little salt for about half an hour then pan-fried or battered and deep-fried. It's a hassle but in the end, well worth the effort.

The main problem with oily fish is that they have to be eaten as soon as they are caught or they get very strong-flavored and I think that's what really puts many people off of them. More for me, however!

Posted Fri, Jul 16, 1:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow! Yum! I'm off to get some if I can, having enjoyed them many times in France, where they are commonplace. I like 'em gutted but with the bones and heads on - love that crunch! Lemon, garlic, a little salt....but no butter, please! Let's hope a market develops here for locally harvested ones. I promise to do my best. With fish, small is beautiful - and tasty. University Seafood carries smelt in season, which can be very sardine-like.

Knute, I'm with you 100% that sugar in smoked fish is an abomination. I've largely quit eating it as a result. Why do they put it in so darn many foods? Tomato sauce is another victim, especially the organic brands which almost all seem to have it. It takes over any food it's put into, and ruins most of them in my opinion. I avoid most Thai and Indian restaurants because they seem to sugar everything - do they really eat that way in Thailand and India? I think (or hope,) not. I'll be watching here and hoping someone can tell us where to find real smoked fish.

Posted Fri, Jul 16, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Another great article, Hugo. Thanks. Ballard already has a gourmet sardine dish, on the menu at Bastille: http://www.bastilleseattle.com/dinner-menu/ It's smoky and delicate and evokes the sea in the manner you described so well. Long live the sardine!

Posted Fri, Jul 16, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice article! I love grilling sardines or especially filleted raw served nigiri style. One place I've found great quality fresh and frozen sardines is at: http://www.ilovebluesea.com/fresh-sardines-iwashi-p-67.html . Good stuff. I'm salivating right now.

Posted Fri, Jul 16, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute,

I don't know how "local" you consider Westport, but Bay City Sausage on highway 105 towards the coast does a great job of smoking meats, cheeses and fish. I think their smoked salmon is great and while I didn't inspect the label too closely I don't recall any sugary taste. Worth a try if you're ever heading out towards Grayland.

George

Posted Fri, Jul 16, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

I love sardines, and I eat them every day at work, much to the chagrine of my co-workers, many who would rather eat donuts. Hey, a good donut every now and then is cool, but I think sardines are delicious and satisfying! I hope more restaurants begin to offer up these tasty little morsels....

jsperry

Posted Tue, Jul 20, 9:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Talk about timing. I just finished a can of local sardines, -well, West Coast caught, canned in Vietnam- certainly not the fishery's fault- from Wild Planet Seafoods.
Very good indeed.
It's a shame that more is not made of the return of the Pacific Sardine. Believe me, they are back. Have been for a number of years, but eating habits have changed, and the thousands of tons caught off the West Coast are largely frozen and shipped for bait or (the horror) fish farm feed.
I had some excellent sardines at Fulio's in Astoria. Fresh, very local, and so good.
Like so many things, it is a distribution/market problem. How do we get a distributor to take the time to ship pounds for dollars with care, when he can do tons for pennies and take it all.
Local anchovies should be a bigger deal too. They just showed up last week in Neah Bay.
Last year I cured some as 'boquarones' (sp?) and made a paste for use in caesar salads and pasta sauces. A lot of work, but really flavorful.

JeremyB

Posted Tue, Sep 21, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute,
Smoke your own! It's easy and delicious.

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