Sardines with Feta and Salmoriglio

Photographing Sardines with Feta and Salmoriglio this past week reminded me of a fancy dinner where Jody and I found ourselves sitting across the table from Stephen Hawking’s literary agent, who told a story about A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME.  The original manuscript, we learned, had been an overlong demanding text several times the size of the slender volume that was eventually published.  The agent revealed how he convinced Hawking how to pare it down.  “I explained to him that every time he used a mathematical formula in his book he was going to lose half his readers.”

Hawking must have taken his advice to heart.  There’s nary a single formula in the entire story.

Friends have suggested a similar axion holds for food bloggers.  Every time you publish a photo of a fish with its head on you’re going to lose half your readers.  

A related corollary might be . . . and if the fish is a sardine, you’re going to lose the other half.

(If either of those things are a problem for you, right now might be a good time to leave this post and take that amusing amble back through the THE GARUM FACTORY archives you’ve been contemplating.)

In the United States, sardines are the wallflowers at the culinary sock hop.  Alone, unloved, lampooned in cartoons.  Too bad.  Sardines are cheap, unbelievably good for you, and as everyone in the Mediterranean well knows, absolutely delicious with a rich meaty flavor.  They’re packed with protein and nutrients that contribute to cardiovascular health, like vitamin B-12 and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.  Only calves liver offers a more concentrated food source of vitamin B-12.  We eat canned sardines in olive oil regularly (they’re not unloved in our house), but fresh ones are a genuine treat.  Typically we grill them – and invite people over who like to eat with their fingers — but the morning we did this post it was pouring outside and we didn’t want to make you think you need a grill pan to enjoy them.  The broiler worked fine.

Sardines are related to herrings, but don’t be put off by the bones.  They’re easily removable as you eat, but they’re also soft, which means there’s no need to invoke Saint Blaise if you accidentally ingest a whisker bone.

Salmoriglio is a tasty little sauce from Sicily worth inviting into your list of go-to quick condiments.   At its bare boniest, salmoriglio is little more than olive oil heated with garlic, a bit of lemon and, characteristically, dried oregano.  Although frequently described as “good on anything,” I like it best with grilled food.  Swordfish or dark-meat fish like sardines, mackerel or bluefish go happily with it; grilled lamb blade chops are another alternative.  Rule of thumb: anything you’d match with garlic yogurt will play well with salmoriglio.  Serving it at a dinner party will earn you novelty points.  Few guests will recognize the name (unless they’re Sicilian), and despite the familiarity of the ingredients I can almost guarantee they’ll never have tasted a lemon-oregano combination before.

The morning we cooked these sardines we happened to have a Clear Flour foccacia and the makings for a little salad on hand.  I shot a couple of different ways of dishing things up.  Lunch was great.


Sardines with Feta and Salmoriglio

Makes  8 sardines


  • 3/4 cup evoo
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably from Greece
  • Juice of one lemon (about ¼ cup)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 8 fresh sardines, scaled and gutted (your fishmonger will do this)
  • 1 tablespoons salted capers, soaked for 20 minutes, drained
  • 1 ounce Greek feta, crumbled


  1. To make the salmoriglio combine the evoo, garlic, bay leaves, chili flakes, dried oregano, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of water in a pot.  Bring everything to a bare simmer and keep it there for 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
  2. When cool, remove bay leaves and add the fresh oregano and parsley.
  3. Season the fish with salt and pepper.  Brush inside and out with salmoriglio.
  4. Preheat a broiler.
  5. Put a broiler pan in the oven to heat for 2 to 3 minutes.  Set the sardines on the broiler pan 1/2 inch apart.  They should sizzle.  Broil on the top shelf of the oven for 4 to 5 minutes or until the skin is starting to char and the meat of the fish is firm and cooked through.
  6. Or… preheat a grill or grill pan to high.  Grill the sardines on the first side for 4 minutes.  Gently flip the sardines to the second side and cook 1 to 2 minutes or until done.
  7. Arrange the sardines on a platter, drizzle with remaining salmoriglio and sprinkle with capers and feta.
  8. I like to serve the sardines with crusty bread and a fresh tomato and greens salad, which you can dress with salmoriglio, if there’s any remaining.  Suggest that people pick up the sardines and pinch off the filets with their fingers.

Jody Notes:

I love dried oregano.  I can taste the intense sun of the Mediterranean concentrated into those little crisp leaves.  It’s a little sweet, a little lemony and even a little bitter.  Once you’ve had it sprinkled on feta in Greece, you understand what people are aiming for when they sprinkle it on salads here, but I don’t think our oregano has the same intensity.   I like to enhance the flavor with a bit of fresh New England oregano.  It has a less assertive flavor and provides a nice background note for the bold dried.

Salmoriglio is a Southern Italian sauce so the addition of Greek feta in this dish is a bit of a sideways cultural jump (rural Sicilian and Greek cultures are not as far apart as you might think), but they both share a love of dried oregano.  If you’re a purist, skip the feta.

Salmoriglio’s use is limited only by your imagination (it’s a bit like dukkah that way).    Fish, shellfish, salads – they all work.  Leftovers will keep refrigerated for a few days.  

28 thoughts

  1. I love the combination of fresh and dried oregano here. I’ve used it on pasta for a simple dinner, but never tried salmoriglio–which seems like it would be even better. Can’t wait to try these sardines. Thanks!

    • They’re a nice thing to do for a first course if you’re grilling dinner for friends–they take no time at all and people get down to finger-licking business fast! Ken

    • Lobsters were once poor man’s food too, right? Isn’t that the way it always goes? I was disappointed to learn recently that monkfish, poor man’s lobster, once cheap, now edging toward expensive, is endangered. Scup, long though of as a “low end” fish because of its bones, is enjoying a current turn in the spotlight. Higher end diners are discovering what its less privileged advocates have always known–it’s delicious! Ken

  2. I have about 25 cans of sardines in my pantry (I buy mail order in bulk). I can’t get enough of them–I tried them when I was pregnant when I threw my hands up at the “eat fish…but don’t eat fish” advice–when I figured out that sardines were high omega-3, low mercury, sustainable, and cheap to boot, I never looked back. I like them with grainy mustard out of the can. I’ve only occasionally seen them fresh but I hope I do again soon, so I can make this! Thanks for providing a version you don’t need a grill for (as we don’t have one).

    • Sardines in bulk! You and Molly are the queens of culinary economy! They really are delicious. I don’t know why so many people think they’re gross. Then again, lots of folks think that ANYTHING swimming in olive oil is gross. Regarding grilling, as an experiment, right after we finished cooking the batch that appears in the photos, we did a few with a grill pan, which were also good and for obvious reasons a little more “grilled” looking. They were tasty, but hardly worth the extra effort to me. Plus if you broil them on aluminum foil there’s almost no clean-up. Now, on a wood-burning outdoor grill, it might be a different story. Ken

  3. Once again you are at the forefront of the culinary zeitgeist. Sardines are the kale of the fish world. I’ve been reading about their health benefits a lot lately and have been planning to experiment with them. This is the recipe that will make it so. I think this maligned fish would benefit from a name change. Maybe you’re the team to come up with just the right name to rehabilitate sardine’s fishy reputation.

    • Ha! Rebrand them as, say, Black Bream! Fresh sardines do in fact already have another name, unfamiliar on this side of the Atlantic–pilchards. In other English-Speaking countries the small fish that make it into cans are sardines. The same fish, six inches or longer (there’s some play here) are referred to as pilchards. While there’s a European market for small fresh sardines and pilchards, in North America, the fresh fish is typically only the larger of the two. If you don’t want to deal with the heads-on version with kids (an experience I’ve found that can go either way–really cool or really gross) then try Googling “How to fillet a fresh sardine video.” There are a ton of videos explaining how to clean (which you usually won’t have to do) and fillet them. Just make sure you have a sharp knife! Ken

  4. I can’t decide what I find more inspiring in this post – the intriguing recipe, enticing photos, or scintillating methaphors.

    “sardines are the wallflowers at the culinary sock hop”

    Love it!

  5. I doove sardines and get quite jealous when I see them on the net, it’s years since I have tasted them. You don’t see them in NZ, people just don’t seem to eat little fish here

  6. You did it once again. Had a whole completely different dinner planned for last night’s company and then your email came and was totally snared by your recipe and description of the Sardines with Feta and Salmoriglia. How could I resist? Dinner was amazing? Thank you once again.

  7. I hardly ever see whole, fresh sardines in the suburb markets – very frustrating, as I love to cook them! In fact, it’s hard to find whole fish at all; I only see trout on a regular basis. I fear the stores are only carrying what sells – easy to cook, prepared foods – something ‘unfamiliar’ like sardines won’t turn over fast enough :( But I’ll try this the next time I’m lucky enough to find them!

    • I think that’s also true for mackerel, whether whole or filleted, another delicious, incredibly healthful (and cheap!) fish that many vendors don’t handle because unadventurous consumers think it’s “too fishy.” The most “out there” fish that some stores carry is bluefish. Really too bad. Thanks for the comment. Ken

  8. Oh my, that salmoriglio is good stuff! Thanks!

    Had a fishy mothers day feast, with this dish to start, grilled tuna tips with salmoriglio, grilled asparagus and fiddleheads finished with roasted lemon juice, and your squid with white beans. And home made foccacia. Fantastic recipes (the food, instruction, and those photos)!

    • That’s quite a feast! I haven’t tried salmoriglio with tuna, but I’m sure it’s a delicious combination. I only hope your wife is as into our blog as you are. Thanks for commenting–I’m glad the food and the pictures are working for you. Oh, and homemade focaccia–I’m impressed! Ken

  9. Hi, Ayako–Sardine sashimi–wow! I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before–and I’m a big fan of sushi and sashimi. (Just goes to show how behind the curve we are in Boston!) But as soon as I Googled it I found several references to it (Iwashi) in New York and California restaurants, plus a raft of videos in Japanese demonstrating how to prepare it. Now I’m intrigued. If I can find some sardines that look and smell like they just came out of the water I’m going to try them as sashimi. Thanks for enlightening me! Ken.

    • Salut, Francois – You’re very generous. Lots of good stuff on your blog. We do culinary cycling trips and safaris from time to time, so we know what that’s like. We have one coming up in Burgundy next October, but we’ll have to see what conditions are like on the ground before we go. Ken

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