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.
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
Grilled Sardines with Ramps and Rhubarb Agrodolce
Serve as an appetizer or first course
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Preheat a grill.
- Rinse the sardines inside and out under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
- Season inside and out with salt and pepper. Brush with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
- 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.
- 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.
- Serve with the ramp and rhubarb agrodolce.
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.