A fresh look at three little fishes

Small fish are lower on the food chain, so they typically have less mercury in them.
Small fish are lower on the food chain, so they typically have less mercury in them.
Posted: November 12, 2009

Sardines, anchovies, smelts. To know them is to love them. Getting to know them properly is the issue, but all that's needed is a "fresh" look.

Most of us remember canned sardines or anchovies as something our parents or our parents' parents would eat at home while we turned our noses up. And perhaps that memory kept us from discovering the fresh varieties.

"It's a generational thing," says Sam Mink, of the Oyster House, known by locals of another generation as the Sansom Street Oyster House.

He says there may be a cultural gap too. Europeans, especially those from Portugal and Greece, devour small fresh fishes. On this side of the ocean it's been a different matter.

"Many Americans think of sardines as smelly things in cans, Mink says. "They remember anchovies as dark, hairy things on salads. And for the most part, they don't know the difference between sardines or anchovies."

But oh, how times have changed.

These small fishes are gaining respect for their sustainability, savory taste, and health benefits. They are lower on the food chain, so they don't contain as many toxins such as mercury. The high omega-3 content of sardines and smelt, for example, makes them heart-healthy. And chefs love small fish because they come with smaller price tags and still satisfy appetites.

"People are pleasantly surprised when they take a bite," says Mink, whose Center City restaurant serves fresh sardines from Portugal.

"Quite a few people keep coming back for more," Mink says.

Oyster House sardines are filleted and grilled, then served on crostini with a side of arugula and roasted red peppers.

Smelts are a surprising favorite at Standard Tap in Northern Liberties. Chef Carolyn Angle says fresh smelts are slightly larger than the frozen variety she buys in the off-season.

She dips the small smelt in buttermilk and seasoned bread crumbs and deep-fries quickly. She grills the larger smelt.

"People actually call ahead now to find out if we're serving the small or the large smelt," Angle says. "And when I hire new servers, I make them eat the smelt, so they'll be able to describe them to customers."

Angle says the generation gap also shows itself with smelts, which some people think of as "old-people food."

As Northern Liberties has become gentrified, younger artists are more likely to eat out on weeknights and people their parents' age who live on the Main Line dominate on weekends.

"The older crowd will come in raving about smelts," Angle says. "But the younger people don't know about smelts - until they taste them. Then they love them."

Standard Tap regulars also ask for Angle's grilled sardines.

"That season just started too. We serve them head-on, but gutted and with the scales pulled off."

Fresh smelts and sardines have been a staple on the menu at Estia ever since the restaurant opened four years ago on Locust Street between Broad and 15th.

Manager Stephen Nothnagel says the sardines are deboned, stuffed with fresh oregano and wrapped in celery strands, brushed with ladolemeno - an olive oil and lemon emulsion - and then charcoal grilled.

To accommodate first timers, Nothnagel says, "We offer four sardines as an appetizer that can be shared."

White, mild anchovies at Estia are lightly floured, pan-fried in a blend of olive and canola oil, and served whole, head-on, with lemon and parsley.

Estia's smelts are marides from Greece and they're prepared in the same way.

Still, some customers are easily frightened by these small, unfamiliar fish, Nothnagel says.

"We display them on ice on our fish display, because a lot of people have just seen them in a can or in pieces."

Seafood Buying Tips

Buy 'em young. The longer fish live, the more toxins and other pollutants accumulate in their system. Go with fish that have shorter life cycles. They also tend to be lower on the food chain. Buying fish that reach sexual maturity faster, such as mackerel, means there's more of a chance for the fish stocks to stay replenished.

Try something new. Smart fishmongers not only sell a variety of fish but take every opportunity to give out free samples.

Do your research. While it's tempting to indiscriminately tar one species as bad or good, the decision has to be more nuanced. Alaskan wild salmon, for example, gets high marks, while Atlantic farm-raised salmon is often considered a no-go. But not all Atlantic salmon farm operations are alike; some are hustling to be environmentally sensitive.

Speak up. Question your fish seller or restaurant server on the seafood you want to order. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch says you should ask these questions: Where is the seafood from? Is it farmed or wild-caught? How was it caught?

Anchovy and Olive Salad

Makes 4 servings

5 ribs thinly sliced celery

16 white Spanish anchovy fillets

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup aged Spanish sherry vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup Arbequina olives, pitted

4 ounces Manchego cheese, shaved

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1. Peel the celery to remove some of the heavy fiber, if desired. Thinly slice each rib on the diagonal. Rinse the anchovy fillets in cold water; pat dry with paper towels.

2. Slowly whisk the olive oil into the vinegar in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the celery with some of the dressing in a bowl.

3. Divide celery among four plates. Top with the olives. Lay four anchovies on the mixture on each plate. Garnish with cheese and chives. Drizzle some of the dressing around the plates.

- From Randy Zweiban of Chicago's Province restaurant

Note: Zweiban uses fresh anchovies that he packs in salt for four or five days and then immerses in olive oil. White Spanish anchovy fillets, available at specialty shops, may be substituted as here. The chef also likes small Arbequina olives from Spain in this dish. They, too, may be purchased at specialty stores. Substitute Nicoise olives if the Arbequina are unavailable.

Per serving: 506 calories, 22 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams fat, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 2,954 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Pasta With Fresh Sardines

Makes 4 to 6 servings

12 fresh whole sardines

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley leaves

2 dried, hot chiles

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1/3 cup raisins

1 lemon

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/3 cup pine nuts

3/4 pound linguine

1. Fillet the sardines. Peel and finely slice the garlic. Chop the parsley and crumble the chiles. Sprinkle the saffron threads over 3 tablespoons of hot water and let it stand for 20 minutes. Soak the raisins in warm water for 20 minutes. Cut the lemon into quarters.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet and fry the garlic and parsley. Add the sardine fillets in one layer and fry gently for 2 minutes, or until cooked through, spooning the garlic and parsley over them. Season with salt and pepper.

3. In a separate skillet, brown the pine nuts, then sprinkle with the chile.

4. Cook the linguine in boiling salted water until al dente; drain and return to the pot. Drain the raisins and add to the pasta with the saffron. Toss to combine. Add the sardines and juices from the pan, and check the seasoning. Scatter the pine nuts and chile over. Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

- From Italian Two Easy (Clarkson Potter)

Per serving (based on 6): 428 calories, 15 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 128 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Roasted Sardines With Bread Crumbs, Garlic, and Mint

Makes 4 servings

12 fresh sardines, scaled, cleaned

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 stalks green garlic, trimmed, thinly sliced, or 4 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup fresh, coarse bread crumbs

1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked, minced

1/3 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, torn by hand

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Cut off head of one of the sardines. Open fish; place flesh-side down on a work surface. Press the palm of your hand along spine to loosen it. Trim off the back fin. Turn sardine over. Grasping the backbone at the head end, pull it out, toward the tail, in a single motion. Rinse sardine under cold running water; check for any loose bones. Pat dry. Repeat with remaining sardines.

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Season both sides of sardines with salt. Arrange the opened sardines on a baking sheet skin side up. Brush both sides lightly with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Roast sardines, skin side up, until cooked through and beginning to sizzle, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic; cook, stirring, until softened, about 1 minute. Remove garlic with slotted spoon to a plate. Add bread crumbs to skillet. Cook, stirring, until crumbs brown lightly, about 2 minutes. Remove skillet from heat; add the garlic, capers, and mint.

4. Transfer sardines to serving platter. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Spoon bread crumb mixture over sardines; drizzle with olive oil. Serve hot.

- A16 Food + Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren

Per serving: 259 calories, 18 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams fat, 52 milligrams cholesterol, 983 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

This article contains information from the Chicago Tribune.

Reach Inquirer staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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