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
- 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.
- When cool, remove bay leaves and add the fresh oregano and parsley.
- Season the fish with salt and pepper. Brush inside and out with salmoriglio.
- Preheat a broiler.
- 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.
- 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.
- Arrange the sardines on a platter, drizzle with remaining salmoriglio and sprinkle with capers and feta.
- 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.
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.