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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