Grilled Sardines with Ramps and Rhubarb Agrodolce

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When our son Oliver was seven or eight and we lived within shouting distance of East Cambridge I used to take him with me to visit Courthouse Fish Market on Thursday afternoons to pick up seafood for dinner.  Courthouse is an old-school establishment and would easily win my vote best seafood market in greater Boston.  Glass cases filled with ice and gleaming fresh fish–sardines, tilefish, snapper, salmon, flunder, bluefish, squid, swordfish and several varieties of clams, including the large razor clams you’ve seen here before.  Opposite the fresh fish display a freezer holds frozen octopus, Alaskan king crab legs, squid and fava beans and wooden cases stacked nearby contain salt cod.  On Thursdays Moray eels came in from Portugal.  One of these arm-sized monsters, dark gray with brilliant yellow spots and a ferocious set of teeth in its gaping jaws usually occupied pride of place in the front window.  We stood in front of the store and stared.  People ate that?  Indeed they do, as evidenced by the line of Portuguese-speaking women lined up waiting to buy a piece of eel for the next day’s seafood stew.  We no longer live within hailing distance of this venerable Cambridge institution, but when I pass through the neighborhood I make a point of stopping by, even if I don’t need anything (now you know how those two 10-pound octopuses ended up in my freezer). For this week’s Sardines with Ramps and Rhubarb Agrodolce I made a special trip.

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Fresh Portuguese sardines are a seasonal treat, dependably available from May through October, with outliers showing up as early as mid-April and as late as December.  I was introduced to them as an adult, as were most people my age, unless they were immigrants from Portugal, Italy or the Azores.  There simply was no market for them outside certain communities when I was growing up, but as restaurants embraced them and American tastes have broadened, fresh sardines have come along for the ride.  Do not confuse them with canned sardines.  These are plump, rich guys next to their smaller, seemingly more ascetic brethren destined for life in a metal coffin.  If you like bluefish or mackerel (you do like them, don’t you?) you’ll find sardines an exquisite variation.  Your fishmonger should scale and gut them for you.  They require little more than seasoning with salt and pepper and lick of olive oil before they hit the grill, then a couple of minutes on each side.  I apologize for not including photos on how to fillet them, but it’s so easy it slipped my mind that we needed to do it.  A knife run down the backbone will help you lift off the top fillet (if they’re cooked, you should be able to do this with a butter knife).  Carefully raise the tail and the spine and rib bones should come away from the bottom fillet, leaving you holding an iconically cartoonish fish frame.  You can get obsessive about removing any residual whiskery bones, but they are soft and edible.

Ramps, ramps, ramps… what are we to do?  The omniverous maw of America’s increasingly sophisticated palate is chomping its way through this foraged member of the allium family.  Often called “wild garlic” or “wild leaks,” ramps grow in patches in moist low terrain or on the banks of rivers or streams, primarily in a wide swath from southern Appalachia all the way up through New England and Canada.  Seen for only a few short weeks in the spring, ramps are sweeter than garlic, despite a pungent aroma and their leaves are as delicious as the stem and bulb.  Despite objections from a minority of chefs and commercial foragers who extrapolate from their own healthy local stock, plant biologists in national parks and a good portion of the foraging community have noted a shrinking ramp population, fueled by a wholesale market willing to pay upward of $20 a pound for them.  In an attempt to stem the decline Quebec has banned all commercial foraging for them.  National parks in the US, unable to enforce foraging limits, have forbidden taking them in many cases.  Many foragers recommend more restrictive foraging techniques, such as harvesting single leaves from each plant, or cutting the bulb and leaving a portion of it, along with the rootstock, in the ground to encourage repropagation.  Taking no more than a tenth or a third of any given patch in a year has also been proposed.  In the face of continued culinary demand and little enforcement against excessive harvesting the future of ramps does not look good.  A policy of eating only what you can forage yourself, along with more restrictive harvesting methods would seem ideal, but unlikely.  The decline of ramps is a story that’s still whispered, not shouted.  I’m not certain what I’ll do next year.  In the meantime I plan to enjoy these like a man savoring his last meal, which as far as the ramps are concerned, it may well be.  Ken

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  • Servings: 4 to 6, depending on the size of the sardines
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Grilled Sardines with Ramps and Rhubarb Agrodolce

Serve as an appetizer or first course

Ingredients:

  • 10 ounces rhubarb
  • 5 tablespoons sugar
  • 6 ounces small ramps or scallions
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1/8 teaspoon anise seeds
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 sardines, scaled and gutted (your fishmonger will do this)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

  1. Cut the rhubarb into ¼-inch dice and put into a bowl.  Add 3 tablespoons sugar and toss well.  Allow to macerate while you prepare the ramps.
  2. Trim the roots off the ramps, careful not to remove the bulb.  Separate the bulb and several inches of stem from the greens.  Wash the greens and set aside until you’re ready to grill them.  Peel the papery outer paper layer from the bulbs and then wash in a bowl of water.
  3. Combine the remaining sugar, ginger, pepper flakes, anise seeds, orange zest, bay leaf, thyme, vinegar and water in a nonreactive pot.  Bring to a boil and then simmer 2 minutes.  Season with salt.  Add the ramp bulbs and simmer until tender, about 4 minutes.  Add the rhubarb and simmer 2 minutes or so, stirring often.  Scoop the ramps and rhubarb out of the liquid and transfer to the bowl.  Return the pot to the heat and continue simmering until the liquid has reduced to a syrup. Pour over the ramps and rhubarb, stir once or twice and allow to cool.
  4. Preheat a grill.
  5. Rinse the sardines inside and out under cold running water.  Pat dry with paper towels.
  6. Season inside and out with salt and pepper.  Brush with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
  7. Just before cooking the sardines, toss the ramp greens with a tablespoon of oil, season with salt and pepper and then throw on the grill and cook until they just start to char and puff turning once.   Arrange in a single layer on a platter.
  8. Cook the sardines on the hottest part of the grill for 1½-2 minutes.  Flip and cook on the second side 1½-2.  Transfer to the platter and arrange over the ramp greens.  Drizzle with the last tablespoon of olive oil.
  9. Serve with the ramp and rhubarb agrodolce.

 

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JODY NOTES

Agrodolce. This is such an awesome word to say.  If you trill the “r” and then drop your voice to say the “o” in dolce you’ll feel Italian.  “Sweet and sour” just isn’t the same.  In English sweet only meets sour with the use of a conjunction, and.  In Italian, one just flows into the other.  That’s what the flavors should do in your mouth. So what better way to start than with rhubarb, which on it’s own is agrodolce.   It turns out it works!

Agrodolce is typically made with sugar and vinegar and often involves raisins and pine nuts.  It might have an herb or some garlic thrown in as well.  I love the flavor of ginger and orange with the rhubarb.  Originally an agrodolce was a technique employed to preserve food, usually fish.  The fish agrodolce of Venice–Sfogi in Saor–with lots of onions, is known to every serious student of Mediterranean cuisine.  Sicily’s vegetable agrodolce—Caponata–is even more well-known.

Today you’ll most like encounter agodolce with caponata, or as a sauce dressing a dish of cooked fish that is served at room temperature.

 

 

 

 

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36 thoughts

  1. Wow. I’ve had rhubarb with mackerel before (and loved it), but never sardines, and never this way. This sounds truly delicious, I love the spiced rhubarb and garlic condiment. I don’t think ramps exist in France, we have a thing called “ail des ours” which looks similar, but I’ve never seen it with a bulb. Rhubarb has just started appearing at the market, I am looking forward to using it in more savory recipes this year.

    • Hi, Darya–“Ail des ours,” bear’s garlic, is similar but not quite the same thing, and it’s considerably stronger. Ramps are North American. Just substitute scallions and you’ll be fine, especially because of the sugar in the rhubarb and the reduced syrup. Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever seen rhubarb in France–or even read about it in French cooking. I’m curious to see what you’ll make! Ken

      • Well, it depends where you travelled in France. In the South, the season is very short and many people don’t really know about rhubarb or how to use it. But here in the North, the season starts about now, and lasts until August (I’ve even seen local rhubarb at the market in September). People here use it alot, in both sweet and savory recipes. My favorite is a kind of pork tenderloin served with a beer and rhubarb compote. It is really delicious!
        Scallions are definitely easier to come by than ail des ours. I’ll be on the lookout for decent looking sardines!

  2. Last month’s Saveur magazine was the seafood issue, and they had an entire article about sardines. I bookmarked a white bean and tomato stew made with canned sardines — skinless and boneless — but I think you’re really enjoy the article, and the entire magazine, actually. Cambridge seems so far away, but I’ve heard great things about the fish shop in Brighton. I think it’s on Chestnut Hill Ave…

    • Hi, Molly–I haven’t been by that fish shop, but now I’ll take a look. Part of what makes Courthouse so appealing is that they carry so many things, and so much that is seafood you usually don’t see (e.g. like the Moray eel and tilefish I saw yesterday). I get bored with the usual salmon-swordfish-bluefish-scallops-shrimp that one usually sees. I want monkfish, skate, razor clams, octopus. Plus, everything looks as if it arrived 15 minutes before you walked in the door. I have the Saveur Seafood issue, but haven’t had a chance to get to the sardine article yet–thanks for the reminder. Ken

  3. All of your seafood dishes make me miss living near the coast. So much variety! I’ll keep my eye out for ramps. I haven’t seen any in markets this year.

  4. ¡Que bueno!

    I have seen the Portuguese fishermen in Sagres, Portugal climb down a rope on a very steep cliff down into little nooks where there would cast lines more than 100′ or longer to catch the tasty sardines…it was amazing really!

    For me, it was Wulf’s Fish Market in Brookline back in the day when I would grab whatever sea creatures that John Vyhnanek had on the menu at Harvard Street Grill. Besides the salmon that I usually skinned and portioned, monkfish stands out for some reason ;)

    As said already…ramp photo rocks!
    Definitely the cover!

    • Hi Jim–I regularly shop at Wulf’s (that’s where we buy our shad roe). I just like the stuff a bit more out on the fringe at Courthouse–all the seafood I mentioned in my response to Molly. By the way, John Vyaneck worked with Jody and me on the Ritz Carlton cookbook when he was their chef. He wrote recipes–Jody tested and scaled them–and I edited the prose. A long long time ago. Great story about the fishermen in Sagres. Not surprising in a country where the majority of sardines are eaten fresh. K

      • I remember you telling me that! A couple of years ago, I got a nice used hardcover of that book for $4 on Amazon.
        As I was using the WordPress app no my iPad and scrolling down the reader to check the comment, i realized that you take a dizzying amount of photos for these posts. Which is fine for me – floating & swimming in food photography is a skill I have mastered…;)

      • Ugh! Dang the WordPress iPad app. If this appears twice…all apologies.

        I do remember you telling me about The Ritz Carlton Cookbook. in fact, I bought a nice used hardcover ($4 Amazon!) a couple of years ago after you had mentioned it.Back to that app…As I scrolled down the post quickly to the comments, I have just started to realize what a dizzying amount of photos you have for each post. Its entirely fine for me because I learned long ago to float, tread & swim on a sea of food photos as a part of life…:)

  5. I love everything about this post. I shop at a wonderful Italian market that often has fresh sardines. I made them once after having them as an appetizer at an Italian restaurant and watching Mark Bittman make them. I think I cleaned them well (I used to be a fish monger after school during high school) but they were so bony I was afraid I’d choke. Did you debone them beforehand or pull the bone out after cooking? I also just baked them and put fresh herbs on them. Your sauce is so wonderfully seasonal with the rhubarbs and ramps. I’m tempted to follow this recipe exactly. I finally caved and bought ramps (not at the green market, but in the store for a whopping $32.99 per 1/4 lb at Fairway! They’re wonderful, but taste a lot like garlic scapes which are like $2.99/lb at the farmer’s market. I am definitely going to give these a try next week. The shad roe is all gone. I was a week late. I need to get down to Union Square market and see if I can find better produce prices! Stunning photos as always.

    • Hi, Amanda–I always grill sardines, but I’m open to baking them, especially in tomato sauce, or even lightly dressed with a little evoo and seasonings. We don’t usually bone them ahead of time–it’s too time consuming. But I definitely pull out the frame after cooking. It’s easy–if you’re careful the entire thing comes out in a single piece, with head and tail attached. You had a part-time job as a fish monger??!! Good for you! (I’m jealous.) I think if the ramps were $120/lb here I’d skip them too. We haven’t seen scapes yet. The photos were fun – put a flash off-center behind your dish and you can see smoke too! Ken

  6. Maybe something else will take the food world by storm and ramps will be left alone? I wonder if they are anything like garlic chives?
    Great photo(s) of the sardines, lined up to meet the agrodolce. (Didn’t know about the Venetian agrodolce, will look it up)

    • Ramps are there own thing, but you can substitute just chives-scapes-scallions and be fine. It won’t taste exactly the same, especially because the greens are unique, but it will work. Regarding the agrodolce, and the history of Venetian food generally, if you ever come across a copy of Clifford Wright’s A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST, pick it up. It’s filled with fascinating material about the evolution of Mediterranean cuisine. Oh, and it has about 1200 recipes too. Ken

  7. I laugh every spring that we should load a vehicle up with ramps (in abundance here) and head up to the Union Square Farmers’ Market. Though I now know from Amanda’s comment, above, that I’d probably be better off heading for Fairway HQ next year. Strangely, I can seldom find rhubarb here. I don’t know why that is. Beautiful dish.

    • Thanks, Michelle. Funny about ramps – you must live in ramps-central. The rhubarb here, for at least the first part of the season comes from Holland (the really pink stuff), then, greener and greener, the local crop supplants. A pastry chef recently told me that growing up he never saw pink rhubarb – it was always green, as is much of our local stuff, when it arrives. You clearly need a Dutch connectuon. Ken

  8. Jody and Ken — I’m really enjoying your “action” photos and recipes. I really like those shots of the ramps cooking and the steam rising up.

    I had no idea ramps were in danger, but it makes sense. I worked at a restaurant in Brookline, Mass. where we served cavatelli with ramp pesto for weeks on end. That’s a lot of ramps. Sardines seem like they’re coming into fashion too, but at least there are more sardines out there than ramps…I think.

      • Hi Ken! I cooked in Ireland and in Boston (after I moved up there for grad school). Now I live in Waco, TX of all places. My husband and I own and operate a pizza restaurant (Shorty’s Pizza Shack) and we’re owners of a Korean BBQ taco truck. So…we don’t get to cook things like ramps and sardines at work, but that just gives me an excuse to cook at home and blog about it.

        Do you take these photos and cook at a restaurant (Rialto or Trade?) or at home? Btw, when I worked in Boston, the other chefs used to rave about Rialto. Maybe I’ll finally make it there when I visit in September!

      • We cook and photograph in our house – unless we’re doing something on the road. Jody cooks, I shoot and write. Texas! I was there a couple of months ago for a bug-eating event in Austin, and a chance to hang with my brother in San Antonio and the ranch country. Korean BBQ tacos AND a pizza joint AND a blog – you guys are ambitious. You’re welcome to stop by in September. Send me the name of your blog. Thanks. Ken

      • Bug-eating! Oof! There’s a place near here that serves grasshoppers. I haven’t tried them yet, but I did try some cookies made of cricket flour last time I was in NYC. The flavor was…nutty? I guess it’s sustainable!

        My blog is Crandlecakes.com. “Crandlecakes” was just a catchy nickname–I didn’t start out as much of a pastry person, but I guess I started living up to the blog name. Now I make a lot of cakes. Funny how that happens. My aunt does pastry, so maybe I inherited it.

        That must be great to blog with a partner. I can never get those action or movement photos because I’m the one cooking and taking photographs!

  9. Really like this recipe idea for sardines. This salty fish is still my kryptonite, so I have been looking for recipes I can try out. I like your photo grid of the preparation. Trying this out next week.

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