Grilled Sardines

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Sardines are named after Sardinia, the Italian island where large schools of these fish were once found. While sardines are delightful enjoyed fresh, they are most commonly found canned, since they are so perishable. With growing concern over the health of the seas, people are turning to sardines since they are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, feeding solely on plankton, and therefore do not concentrate heavy metals, such as mercury, and contaminants as do some other fish.

While there are six different types of species of sardines belong to the Clupeidae family, more than 20 varieties of fish are sold as sardines throughout the world. What these fish share in common is that they are small, saltwater, oily-rich, silvery fish that are soft-boned. In the United States, sardines actually refers to a small herring, and adult sardines are known as pilchards, a name that is commonly used in other parts of the world. Sardines are abundant in the seas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean with Spain, Portugal, France, and Norway being the leading producers of canned sardines.

Sardines date back to time immemorial, but it was the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who helped to popularize these little fish by initiating the canning of sardines, the first fish ever to be canned, in order to feed the citizens of the land over which he presided. Extremely popular in the United States in the 20th century, sardines are now making a comeback as people realize that they are an incredibly rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

Fresh sardines were used in this dish. If you are purchasing fresh sardines, look for ones that smell fresh, are firm to the touch, and have bright eyes and shiny skin.

In this recipe, the full flavor of fresh sardines needs very little to enhance it. Here, it is complimented by a tomato based Portuguese salsa and grilled lemons.

Serves 4

Ingredients:
10 to 16 fresh whole sardines
2 cups peeled, seeded, and diced tomatoes
3/4 cup extra- virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 Tablespoons minced shallot
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Coarse sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lemon, sliced into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
4 Roma tomatoes halved
Garlic bread, for serving

Directions:
Preheat a very clean, well-oiled grill or broiler to high.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine diced tomatoes, 1/2 cup olive oil,  parsley, shallot, and garlic. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 /2 teaspoon pepper. Mix well. Set aside at room temperature until sardines are ready to be served.

Scale the sardines under running water, by rubbing the skin with your fingers from the tail towards the head. Slit the belly and remove the innards, rinse and pat dry.

Lay the sardines side by side on a clean, dry kitchen towel or on paper towels and gently roll together into a cylinder to remove excess moisture. Refrigerate until ready to use. Note: It is very important that the sardines are sufficiently dry before oiling, seasoning, and grilling.

With a sharp knife, make two slashes in the skin on both sides of each sardine.

Transfer sardines to a small rimmed baking sheet and drizzle 1/4 cup olive oil over them. Turn sardines in oil to coat. Oil grill grate one more time before you begin cooking. Season sardines on both sides with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place directly on grill and cook, undisturbed, until skin is crispy and lightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn sardines over and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Note: If you try to turn the fish too soon, they will stick to the grill. Be patient here and the fish will turn easily once the skin has crisped.

While the sardines are cooking, brush lemon slices and tomato halves lightly with remaining 1 /4 cup olive oil. Season with sea salt and black pepper to taste, and place on grill. Grill until softened and nicely marked on both sides, about 2 minutes.

Place tomato salsa on a serving platter, arrange grilled sardines on top, season them a final time with sea salt and black pepper, and drizzle with remaining 1 /4 cup lemon juice and remaining 1 /4 cup olive oil. Serve immediately with the grilled tomato halves,grilled lemon slices and garlic bread.

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