Christ with Sardines, by Giovanni Bellini.
Recipe: Grilled Sardines with Hot Pine Nut Vinaigrette
If you’ve never tasted a really fresh sardine, you have an obligation as an Italian food fanatic to do so. They’re rich and delicious and will open up your taste buds and wash away the remnants of all those boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been too much a part of our lives for too long. I’ve found that fast high-heat grilling shows off their charms the best. When I can find impeccably fresh sardines, I grill them at home. “But, oh, I can’t cook sardines in my kitchen. They’ll stink up the place for days.” Not if you buy really fresh ones.
And therein lies the problem. Sardines are often past their prime at the fish counter. “Are they fresh?” you may think to ask the seller. “Yes, they just came in today.” Well, if so, then they arrived half rotten. Even at Citarella, where the quality is generally so high, I’ve at times been disappointed by the sardines. Sardines and other oily fish go off really fast, and when they do they get that heavy, fishy, rank oil smell that can turn you off to this amazing fish for years. That is not how it should be, and it makes me sad. Eating a really fresh sardine is something every fish lover should experience.
How can you tell if a sardine is super fresh? Usually I can tell by looking. They should be shiny silver and not floppy. But I always ask to smell. Fish sellers really hate that, since it looks bad to the other customers. I really don’t give a damn. I’ve been burned by bad fish too many times. Just get up your courage and do it.
Where do I go to find fresh sardines in this big city? Nowadays I go to the Chelsea Market. The Lobster Place at the Chelsea Market (at Ninth Avenue and 15th Street in Manhattan) has expanded, and with that expansion has come a big commitment to quality and freshness. It has always been a pretty good fish shop, but its selection used to be smaller. Now they carry everything, tons of whole fish, all sorts of oysters, and lobsters of course, from alive and crawling to chunks of perfectly steamed tail meat to throw into a salad. And very fresh sardines, flown in from Portugal. European sardines have been showing up in New York markets for years, but I stopped buying them, not trusting anyone. Now I’m into them again. These are the freshest I’ve seen in a long time.
To celebrate finding these beauties, I revamped a recipe from my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, making it a little more chic and streamlined. It’s a variation on my most loved sardines-over-salad concept. Don’t be afraid to grill sardines at home. If they’re really fresh, they’ll fill your kitchen with the aroma of the Italian Riviera. Portofino anyone?
Sardines at the Lobster Company.
Grilled Sardines with Hot Pine Nut Vinaigrette
(Serves 4 as a first course)
For the Vinaigrette:
1 cup very fresh pine nuts
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil (use your best oil for this)
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of sugar
The grated zest and juice from 2 lemons
A splash of dry white wine
For the sardines:
1 head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
1 large endive, separated into leaves and then sliced into thick strips
12 fresh sardines, gutted and scaled but with the heads left on
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
The juice of 1 lemon
A handful of marjoram sprigs, the leaves left whole
To make the vinaigrette, toast the pine nuts over low heat in a medium skillet, stirring them around, until they’re golden. Add the olive oil, salt, pepper, sugar, lemon zest and juice, and let it all warm through for about 30 seconds. Add the wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat, but leave the skillet on the burner (to keep it warm).
Divide the frisée and endive up onto four salad plates.
Set up a stove-top grill pan over high heat. Coat the sardines lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle them inside and out with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Grill the sardines until good char marks appear, about 2 minutes per side. Grab the sardines from the grill, and place three on each plate. Scatter the marjoram on them.
Reheat the vinaigrette gently, if you need to, and then spoon some over each salad. Serve right away, with good Italian bread and a glass of Italian rosé (try the Vino Rosato Sangiovese produced by Guido Gualandi).