The Sardine Adventure
Marriage counselor may be required.
My husband sometimes thinks I go too far for America Eats! Examples include baking the same cake three times in one day, each of them falling; getting lost on backroads where cell service/GPS cuts out; bringing home a frozen lamb’s head (long story). A patient and generally amused man, he merely points out these transgressions and then files them away for great party conversation.
He drew the line, though, at the four whole sardines in a bowl in the refrigerator yesterday morning.
“Exactly what do you intend to do with those things and are you going to inflict them on me?” He asked when we were out walking the dog.
America Eats!, what a perfect beach read! Be sure to receive new posts and help support my work by becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Grilling them on our little chimenea, I said, and I sort of was hoping we’d have them for dinner.
“No way.” He once used this same tone with our teenage sons whenever they tried something dumb like sneaking seven friends into the house after 1 a.m.
I was not surprised. On a number of occasions I have publicly dissected my husband’s life long fear of fish and the litany I have to recite every time I serve it. He starts off with:
“What is this?”
Then I say, “You’ve had it before. You like it. It’s mild.”
“Are there bones?”
“There’s no bones.”
Then he forks through a few flakes and takes a cautious taste because, after decades of marriage, he knows I may resort to fibbing if it gets him to do something he doesn’t want to do. I swear it’s almost always to his great benefit. He finally did accept to eat salmon, sometimes cod if it’s fish and chips.
But sardines are not mild tasting and they’re packed with fine bones.
“Just try them,” I said on our dog walk yesterday.
He kindly pointed out we don’t have a grill.
“I’m going to do it on the chimenea.”
“You can’t do that,” he said.
I’m pretty sure he thought this would be the end of the sardines considering our difficulties with the chimenea.
Here’s that story:
I really wanted a chimenea, especially as the lock-down continued. We could have friends and family over, I said. He likes building fires and envisioned sitting before it smoking a cigar. The one I showed him came with gadgets inside to filter out most smoke pollutions. The flue could be removed to lay a grill grate over the fire box. Together, this hatched exciting visions of food tasting of different woods rather than charcoal and lighter fluid. How marvelous would that be?
The next door neighbor, who once took out an order of protection against us (a very long story), did not think it was at all marvelous when she heard about our impending purchase. She’s the neighbor who knows every municipal and federal law there is and lives to enforce them. These were the objections she texted me:
The fire department forbids them (they mean open fire pits. Chimeneas, much like grills, are not. In fact every member of the fire department we know in our neighborhood—and there are many—has a chimenea, a few even have firepits).
It’s environmentally damaging (this is why the flue has a many-layered filter system).
Phone wires and our tree would catch on fire (there are no phone wires crossing our gardens and the tree sits 10 feet away from where we would set it up. Its lowest branch is 20 feet up).
She doesn’t like us (it’s complicated).
We cohabitate beside her under the “don’t poke the bear” rule so we cancelled our order. Then the dear neighbors on the other side of our house and who happen to be hard-nose lawyers, pointed out an obvious fix. If the fire company does show up, simply throw a couple of hot dogs on the grill. This will show it’s nothing but a barbeque.
The chimenea arrived last fall and I started to build small fires in it, always with a bucket of water and small fire extinguisher nearby. But the threat of a new order of protection hung over our enjoyment of the chimenea. My husband never smoked a cigar beside it and felt he had to stand ready to defend wife and home if the cops showed up. After awhile, I just stopped using it.
But then I wrote about my aunt eating a plate of sardines on a pier in Marseille and read the scene in Colette’s Break of Day where she schemes to begin an affair with a young man by offering a garden lunch of grilled sardines and wine. Aroused, I muttered fuck it, and bought the four plump fresh sardines that horrified my husband.
When we returned home from the dog walk, he went to watch a ball game and I pulled out the sardines.
How to prepare sardines when you’ve never done it before:
After discovering the little fish haven’t been gutted, split open their bellies and scoop out the red and purple mess. Later, find a video demonstrating a better way is to chop off the head and, when it’s pulled away, the guts will come out in one long bloody thread. In either case, do this quickly to eliminate the possibility of others bellowing a disgusted cry and scaring the dog.
Wash out the sardines’ insides and pat dry. Lay them on a paper towel and wipe them down to remove whatever scales are still on them. Cut a few small slashed across their skin on either side. Place them on a plate.
Make a marinade of chopped garlic, fresh thyme, rosemary, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil. Pour it over and inside the fish. Rest them in the refrigerator while you go out and build a fire.
How to grill sardines on a wood fire when you’ve never done it before:
Make sure the troublesome neighbor is not around. Have the water hose and a fire extinguisher nearby just in case she is around and/or embers escape.
Arrange kindle over crumpled up newspapers in the chimenea and light. When the fire gets going, gingerly lay a few logs over the flames, making sure not to cut off the flow of oxygen.
Step back if there’s too many logs catching fire and it’s flickering over the top. Make sure the water hose is on.
Miraculously, all goes well. When the flames calm down, carefully lay the well-seasoned grill on top and wait a few seconds until it’s hot. Place the sardines across the grill. The fire may flare up. If so, step further back while still holding the hose.
Grill for 3 minutes then flip them over with a long spatula.
One of those fancy fish grill contraptions could be helpful here but where’s the suspense in that when it comes time to flip the sardines over? It’s no problem if a little skin sticks to the grill. The flesh, particularly the tail, will brown nicely anyway.
Grill on the other side for about 2 minutes. Do not overcook!
Remove the sardines to a plate and squirt lemon juice on them.
How to serve:
Set the table for two people and pour glasses of rosé wine. Cold beer pairs well, too.
Yell that the sardines are ready.
Sit down and wait. Wait some more. Call again. A head may pop out a window and shout sarcastically, “Pass!!”
Scoop two sardines onto a plate, anyway. Devour the sweet meat in its crisp skin. Pour another glass of rosé.
Four sardines turn out not to be enough for two diners.
Feel pretty proud and sated.
I cleared the table and then broiled a slab of salmon for my husband.
“Where’s the sardines,” he asked when I set his plate before him.
“I ate them. They were delicious.”
He investigated the salmon buried under buttery browned leek slices.
“It’s salmon. You like it. There’s no bones,” I said.
I could have sweetly told him he’s an idiot but I was too content.
Oh no! I try to be nice than that considering I'm a handful and he's a kind patient man. Still, the sardines were incredible
Drips with sarcasm and smoky good flavors!