Nobody Expects…Little Fishies

Expect the unexpected, that’s what I say. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” — not even the Pythons.

Don’t you just love it when some perfect treasure turns up right where you were least expecting it? For example, I was in New York recently on a family spring break to visit absurdly expensive colleges. Unable to sleep, I rose early and went for a walk around our deserted neighborhood on a chilly Chelsea morning.  Chelsea verily throbs with human energy during the day, but early on, like much of the city, it’s as quiet as a bar mouse. I got a hot black coffee at the Chelsea Market and set out on foot.

Just around the corner I discovered the High Line, an elevated, abandoned railroad line now transformed into a suspended park. Pure genius! Equal parts hanging garden and hoisted hiking trail, the High Line is one and a half miles of wildflowers, thickets, grasslands, sunbathing lawns, resting benches, cunning birdhouses, and public art. All this, emerging from a rail line whose original purpose was to ferry animal carcasses and produce to and from the adjacent Meatpacking District. What a delight.

But only in the morning. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the High Line is packed shoulder-to-shoulder and provides a distinctly different experience. Oh well, timing is everything. The timing you want for the High Line is early on a workday, when you have it to yourself and the temperature is cold enough to see your breath. That will do.

One of my favorite surprise treasures is the urban fishing hole.  Perhaps the best I know of is on the upper Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Between the two downtown dams and right across from the ship locks is an island, upon which sits a small power plant whose outflow creates a haven for competitive white-water kayakers. The soft water right next to the power plant outflow supports tremendous numbers of smallmouth bass, who no doubt rest in the calm seam, feasting eagerly on all manner of minnow, leech, and aquatic bug. What the  hey, right downtown. You can angle all day and then stop in for a cocktail at St. Anthony Main, if you don’t smell too fishy. Leave your stringer of smallmouth in the cooler and enjoy a Summit Pale Ale at Pracna.

Discovery works the other way as well. One of my favorite upscale restaurants I found in the most unlikely of places, the former cow town of Livingston, Montana. Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grille is no longer in business, but I was treated to several meals there, meals of uncompromising quality. Only a true food-geek will admit to this, but yes, I have indeed adjusted (to contortionist levels) my travel itinerary to accommodate an overnight at the Murray Hotel and a lengthy meal at the LBG. Although Chatham’s culinary palace is now kaput, there are other worthwhile emporia (2nd Street Bistro, Adagio) in Livingston, and the Murray Hotel is practically worth the stop in and of itself. And then there is the fly-fishing . . . Fine dining inMontana — who’da thunk?

This would not be Meezenplace if I didn’t eventually come around to cooking. Lately I’ve been indulging, when I can, in a new edible epiphany — at least, new to me. This comestible, while exotic (or at least underappreciated) on these shores, is a common treat in the Mediterranean– celebrated there, even. However, when I mention it around here, the reply I get is pretty much, “Meh,” or even more often, “Eww.”

That food? Sardines.

See? I told you. I can see your nose wrinkling up from here. But to paraphrase Franz and Hans, eat them now and believe me later. Sardines are drop-dead delicious.

Of course, I’m not talking about the King Oscar variety, tinned in oil, tomato sauce, or spring water, although in the right hands (usually those attached to Spaniards or Italians), the little canned fishies are tremendous. No, I am talking about silver-bright, sea-fresh mini-torpedoes. Clocking in at 10–12 inches in length, fresh sardines have a lot going for them. For one, they are a sustainable fish, environmentally friendly to the max. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (www.montereybayaquarium.org) lists Pacific sardines as a “Best Choice,” the highest consumption ranking available (the MBA Seafood Watch is a great science-based source for making eating decisions that don’t ruin the environment).

Second, sardines are healthy. Chock-full of antioxidant omega-3 fat (even more than salmon), sardines are a less invasive alternative to angioplasty. They accomplish this by eating plankton at the top of the food chain, so they absorb little in the way of mercury, PCBs, and other nasties floating in our ocean currents.

Of course, if sardines tasted like mud-hole carp, I wouldn’t care a whit about their sustainability status or their Fountain-of-Youth qualities. But dang, they are delicious. I recently had one of these lovelies as an appetizer at the Tilikum Place Café inSeattle’s Denny Regrade neighborhood. Tilikum’s version was stuffed with a pureed mirepoix of sautéed onion, carrot, and celery, wrapped in prosciutto, and then grilled until crispy. Wow. I have cooked mine at home a couple of different ways: grilled on the Char-Broil after a short marinade in olive oil, lemon, and garlic, or butterflied, then dredged in panko and sautéed. Yum!

Vapor lock of the brain can be the only explanation for not mentioning previously that sardines — in addition to being sustainable, healthy, and tasty — are dirt CHEAP. The other day I procured several nice ones for a dollar per pound. One dollar. Ten dimes. That is about a buck per fish, with two of those being more than I can eat. I can’t think of anything else I buy that’s decent to eat (much less delicious) that is also this cheap — and when you are the kind of penny- pincher I am, that is saying something.

So the question is: Why do you have to hunt high and low to find fresh sardines in this country, even in a place likePuget Sound? The answer shows just how insane we have become when it comes to food. Most of the sardines caught in this country are fed not to humans but to farmed salmon, in the form of processed fish pellets. This is the kind of thing that makes me go all Lewis Black, f-bomb-dropping crazy. You are kidding me, right? Fish pellets? For farmed salmon? This is the fish that has to be injected with orange dye before sale, because in its natural state it is GRAY and people won’t buy it. And we feed those miserable penned “salmon” a food that we should be eating ourselves, fish that are environmentally friendly, healthy, tasty, and DIRT CHEAP. &^^%^&@$&^$@!

How crazy are we? Don’t answer that. We are, after all, the same people that plow up millions upon millions of acres of bountiful prairie to grow corn to feed to beef that can’t actually digest it so they can get fat and . . . aw, don’t get me started.

I wish I had an idea of how to get us to eat like Mediterraneans, with their sardines, anchovies, hake, eels, squid, branzino, and barnacles that you find at every Podunk fish market there. We have, if not the exact stuff, the equivalent of this cheap, splendid survival cuisine. Instead, we sell ourselves designer fish at thirty dollars per pound. I’m not sure who eats half the stuff I see at my fish market, but I doubt I know them.

So, expect the unexpected, right? When going through this life, it is important to keep things open — like your eyes and ears, not to mention your mind. As for me, I like to keep my mouth open as well.

Fried Sardines

This dish is so easy it barely merits a full recipe.  However, it is so tasty, I include it here.

Panko

Salt

Pepper

Milk

Sardines (butterflied)

Lemon

The main challenge here is butterflying the fish.  Sardine bones are soft, so removing the backbone is usually optional, but if you can master this technique, it just proves your knife technique and makes for a more pleasant (e.g. boneless) eating experience.  Sardines typically come whole and not gutted.  To eviscerate, split them from the vent to the head and remove all the guts and gills, which need then to go right outside because they will seriously stink in a couple hours.  Next, carefully work a small, sharp knife from the vent to the tail, along the backbone.  Once you open up the fish, you can lift out the backbone with your fingers fairly easily. Leave the head on or off, whatever.

Season the panko crumbs with salt and pepper.  Dip each butterflied sardine in milk and then coat with the seasoned crumbs.  Fry in hot oil in a non-stick skillet until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side.

Squeeze with lemon and serve with a tossed mixed green salad and cold rose wine.

Eat Well.

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About John Idstrom

My name is John Idstrom and I write Meezenplace, which is an intentional misspelling of the french cooking term Mise en Place. I am a non-indiginous, invasive species who lives and writes by the beaches of Monterey Bay. I used to think Meezenplace was about food, and maybe it was at some point. Now it's just stories I find that have food in them. Pull up and chair and join me for a meal.
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3 Responses to Nobody Expects…Little Fishies

  1. Don Hurley says:

    John,
    I am on board with you about the sardines. I would ask that you downplay the “buck a fish” as the significant others might start doing the math on our flyfishing trips and come up with a much less favorable ratio! You write as well as you cook such that I was salivating over your description of the sardines you had at the restuarant.
    Dawg

  2. John Idstrom says:

    Got news for you brother. They have already done the math. Suspiciously, they let us proceed with the fly-fishing.

  3. Natalie McNair-Huff says:

    We love sardines and herrIng and smelt. I grew up where the Cowliz & Columbia Rivers meet, which used to be one of the best places in the world to net smelt. Clean the guts out, leave the head on, toss in peppered and salted flour or cracker crumbs and pan fry. That’s it.

    I had the best fresh white sardines at the Custom House in Chicago about four years ago. Did you know you can get pretty good ones at 1022?

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