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When Sardines Are Better Than Lobster

Houston’s Hotspots for the Most Underrated Fish

BY // 08.24.17

In May, I spent some time in southern Italy, ending my journey in Sorrento. Sunny skies, afternoon clouds rolling in low over the peaks, crisp Greco di Tufo, and seafood as fresh as I’ve had anywhere. Octopus, branzino, mussels… and sardines, big, meaty, and briny sardines. I ate them daily, savoring each bite of the firm, rich flesh.

I returned home with a determination to find some good sardines in Houston; not the kind found in tins, but fresh, large(ish) fish, cooked whole, treated with respect, a dish worthy of being the highlight of a meal. This isn’t an easy endeavor in many places in America, but it can be done, whether you want to enjoy them in a restaurant or make them at home.

Now, sardines aren’t for everyone, but those who love them need their fix regularly. If that’s you, and you want to cook your sardines at home, find a source for them — Airline Seafood and Blue Horizon are my two open-to-the-public favorites in Houston. These creatures are full of omega-3 fatty acids, they are not an endangered fish, and they’re wholly satisfying when served with some greens. (Your sardines will in all likelihood be gutted already; if they aren’t do not hesitate to ask your fishmonger to do it for you.)

My cooking method for sardines is simple, and I’ve adapted it from “The Silver Spoon (if you don’t have this cookbook, get it now). They’re broiled, as opposed to grilled, but the results are just as delicious.

Broiled Sardines

6 large sardines, scaled and gutted
6 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
salt
black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
fresh thyme sprigs
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon capers in brine
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Heat your broiler on high, and put a baking pan under the heat for about five minutes. Brush sardines evenly with olive oil. Put one or two sprigs of thyme in the cavity of each sardine, and sprinkle fish with salt and black pepper. Take pan from oven and place sardines in it; drizzle oil over fish, and return pan to oven, two to four inches from source of heat.

Meanwhile, combine lemon juice, garlic, capers, and Worcestershire sauce, plus salt and pepper to taste, and emulsify.

Sardines will be done in four to five minutes; the skin should be crisp, and there is no need to flip the fish — the hot pan will cook the bottom sides.

Arrange the sardines on a platter and serve with the sauce. Tip: Use a fork to gently extract the top meat, then remove the skeleton slowly and savor the remaining flesh.

These are perfectly fine, but fresh sardines can be so much better. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Jibi44)

How about letting someone else cook the fish for you? That’s a good idea as well, and Arcodoro serves a great plate of sardines. They grill them with a deft touch, and their sardines possess a fragrant flesh redolent of garlic, olive oil and spices. Mine were served with fennel and arugula, delightfully savory arancini, peeled tomatoes, and a sauce balanced perfectly on the line between sweet and rich. (Drink a Vermentino with this dish.)

Other restaurants in the Houston area serving sardines include BCN Taste + Tradition, El MesonPeska, and Oporto. (Where do you go for your fix? Use the comments section and let me know.)

Ferran Adrià gets the final word here: “Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster.”

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