By Lisa Helme and Julia Molino
February and March in New England often signal the virtual end of fishing anything but cod in saltwater–that is un- less you are lucky enough to be fishing in Rhode Island waters. We are blessed with exceptional micro-climates and conditions in our Bay and Ocean, which allow our in- trepid anglers to continue to put delicious and varied fresh seafood on the table.
While the larger herring have de- camped for deeper waters, their smaller offspring, delicious little silvery white fish known as sardines, linger behind. Herring reproduce quickly, but the young ones are eagerly consumed by seabirds and larger fish, in particular bluefin tuna in the deeper waters. But as the larger herring head out to sea, the smaller sardines sense the danger and linger in safer, more shallow low waters to avoid the predators. Grateful for their “Spidey-sense,” we look forward to their spring migration as “sardine season”…a good catch and good eats!
“As we head towards the end of the month you will notice sardines are still swimming through our waters and they are more abundant than the full grown herring,” says one Rhody fish expert. You may have heard of her: Gabe the Fish Babe–our very favorite Mermaid. On a one-woman-mission to foster, promote and expand the market for sardines and other under-utilized seafood, Gabrielle Stommel is nothing if not passionate. The New York media call the twenty-something “cutting-edge” and “sexy, honey-haired and long-legged.”
While she is babe enough to appreciate the special chocolate Valentine Fish she posts on her website (aphrodisiac herbs like Yohinbe and brushed with edible 24k gold dust,) Gabe really delights in expand- ing the marketplace for underutilized but delicious fish like sardines. Gabe the Fish Babe (GTFB) and her company by the same name offer consumers a fresh catch of weekly fish for a set, upfront price. Through their GTFB Fish Club, sardines might be featured this week, while flounder or striped bass might be available next week. You can pick up your fish at GTFB locations in Rhode Island, Connecticut and even New York City, or have it delivered direct to your home. Packed in ice and delivered overnight by FEDEX, these fish are as fresh as if you picked them up at the Point Judith dock! And packaged with your fish will come a recipe selected by Gabe–taking into account her knowledge of the individual harvesting techniques
of each of her fishermen–for the perfect preparation to complement and enhance its unique flavor.
Speaking of Gabe’s recipes, we had the extra-special and unexpected pleasure of a home-cooked meal by Gabe her- self, including the most sublime ceviche preparation we’ve ever tasted. Simply sliced thin like sashimi, the scallops were marinated or “cooked” with the juice of freshly squeezed limes and pink grapefruits and topped with scallions…yum! While the menu didn’t include fresh sardines, Gabe’s commitment to meeting the day boats at the pier at getting the very freshest seafood available that day was made crystal clear to us at dinner.
Whether super-fancy fish like sushi- quality fluke or sea scallops, or abundant fish like porgies or blue fish, all of GTFB’s seafood is exceptionally fresh and deli- cious. And while Gabe is insistent on intro- ducing consumers to underutilized fish such as blues, dogfish, skate wing and sea robin through her Fish Club and Seafood Dinners, she also reaches us through a network of restaurants and chefs who are lucky enough to be in her circle. Recently, she was excited to have us meet Chef Kevin King of the restaurant Fluke in Newport. A big fan of GTFB, Chef Kevin joined Fluke in 2009 and was named Executive Chef in 2012. Having worked with such luminar- ies as Chef Rick Laakkonen of Chanterelle and The River Café, as well as Chef Scott Conant of Scarpetta, Alto and L’Impero, his experience gives him a strong background in Mediterranean cuisine. “Sardines were named for the Mediterranean island of Sar- dinia off the coast of Italy,” explains Chef Kevin.
While no longer so abundant in the wa- ters around Sardinia, sardines are still read- ily eaten throughout Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean. From the classic “pasta chi sardi” of Sicily and the stuffed sardines of the South of France to the grilled sar- dines served at Portugal’s beachside cafes, recipes using fresh sardines are abundant: Greek baked sardines with lemon, olive oil and oregano, Tunisian fresh or tinned sar- dines served with harissa–a spicy red hot chili paste, French sardine rillettes (pate), spiced sardines in Thailand made with a sauce of fermented fish, sardines with garam masala–a traditional spice made of cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and hot chilies in India, sardines with chermoula–a green herb sauce made from cumin and corian- der with cilantro or parsley in Morocco, and pickled or raw sardines in Scandinavia. Sardine sushi, we’re told, wows them in Japan!
Once considered the poor man’s seafood, sardines have gotten a bum rap. Executive Chef Matthew MacCartney of Jamestown Fish says, “Everyone associ- ates them with being in a can, being fishy and all that. But when they’re fresh, they’re actually very, very mild. It surprises people that never had them before.”
With sardines once again in growing demand, renowned New York ad agency J Walter Thompson lists sardines in their top five food trends of 2010 and beyond. Citing both their sustainability and the health benefits of the fish, the LA Times calls sardines “the new tuna” of restaurant menus. And the North Atlantic Sardine Council–founded in 1990 for the purpose of educating consumers and health profes- sionals about the many nutritional benefits of eating sardines–proves they are a great source of protein, calcium, Vitamin D, and, most importantly, Omega-3 fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association, sardines are one of the best sources of all oily fishes to provide this essential fatty acid, which cannot be produced by the body and yet is necessary for optimal metabolism.
Environmentally-friendly and good for your heart, sardines are finally getting the recognition they deserve. South Africa’s Sardine Run has become an annual tourist attraction as millions of sardines migrate into the Indian Ocean. The Sardine Run at- tracts not only tourists who gather to watch miles and miles of sardines pass by, but also the sharks, dolphins and whales that come to feed on them. Sometimes the sar- dines get beached and tourists come with buckets, baskets, nets or even hats to snatch them up and take home fresh for dinner!
Chef Kevin and Chef Matthew agree that fresh is best. While a canned sardine can be great in a pantry pasta or included on a cold salad, there’s no comparison to a fresh sardine, even simply prepared. Try Chef Kevin’s recipe for Rhode Island Grilled Sardines, below, served with fennel and arugula in keeping with his Mediterra- nean style. And be sure to check out the ac- companying photo…the fish were selected and delivered by Gabe today…even the fish in the picture are the freshest possible! So fire up your Barbie or grill pan and get your hands on some fresh sardines for your own table…today!
Recipe: Fresh Grilled Sardines
4-6 castelvetrano olives, pits removed and finely chopped 1 lemon, juiced
1 tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 cup Arugula
1 bulb Fennel, sliced thin on mandolin
1 tsp Fried capers
1⁄2 cup, plus 2 tbsp olive oil
Salt & pepper
Scale, gut, remove head and backbone from sardines, leaving filets intact and tail on. Set aside.
In sauté pan fry capers in 1 Tbsp olive oil for 2-3 minutes until crispy. Set aside.
Combine 1⁄2 cup olive oil with lemon juice and mix well. Slice fennel and toss with arugula and herbs.
Pat fish dry on both sides, then rub with 1 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill 2-3 minutes on each side until skin is crispy.
Arrange greens on plate and top with sardines. Drizzle with lemon vinai- grette and fried capers. Top with micro greens as garnish if desired.
*You may use other herbs if desired, careful not to choose herbs that will overpower the dish.