The Uncanny Sardine
Fresh sardines are a delight; canned sardines, not so much. Robert Clark, the executive chef of C, Nu, and Raincity Grill restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia, demonstrates a delicious dish using the small fish that’s harvested sustainably all along the Northwest coast.
As cofounder of The Chefs Table Society of B.C. and the driving force behind the creation of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise seafood conservation program, Chef Robert Clark has championed local, sustainable seafood, working tirelessly to make diners and fellow chefs more aware of the impact they have on the world’s oceans through the seafood choices they make every day.
Sustainable seafood, as defined by Ocean Wise, includes species “that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.”
“People say, ‘What are you going to do when we eat all the sustainable seafood?’” says Chef Clark. “But if it is sustainable, it means that we will be able to eat it in 50 years because we are managing it as a sustainable animal. It’s being harvested at levels that are allowed to maintain the population.”
Sardines—a generic term for small herring—fit the Ocean Wise bill. The migratory fish swims by the millions through the cool Northwest waters every year: they are available fresh, primarily from May through November, and frozen year round. Prized by Mediterranean cultures for their soft textured pink flesh, sardines are a nutritious source of calcium, protein, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Despite their numbers and nutritional benefits, many North American cooks and diners eschew sardines because of their relatively stronger flavor, which they associate with the inferior product commonly found swimming in oil in a palm-sized tin can with a rollback lid.
That’s a shame, says Chef Clark. “Sardines are a really good example of how things have been lost in translation,” he says. “Chefs from Europe—Spanish, French, Italian—they’re used to being around the Mediterranean and sardines. You grill them up and you eat them on crispy bread. It’s very popular.”
Named after the Italian island of Sardinia, where the little fish is commonly found on restaurant menus, sardines have been a sought-after catch in the Northwest, although its history here is somewhat more checkered.
Once the foundation of thriving Northwest fisheries, the harvest of sardines went bust in 1947, when West Coast sardine populations dropped drastically due to the fishes’ cyclical shifts and to overfishing—so much so that there were virtually no sardines in Northwest waters between 1948 and the early 1990s. It wasn’t until 1992 that the little fish began making a comeback.
Chef Clark was an early adopter once sardines returned in numbers great enough to be classified as sustainable, and he has featured the fish on his menus ever since.
Today he’s working in the kitchen at C restaurant, where seafood is the focus of the menu. After collecting all the ingredients that will go into the dish, he starts preparing the sardines.
“Now, the way to clean a fresh one is much different than the way to clean a frozen one,” says Chef Clark. When working with fresh sardines, the bones pull out much easier. But since frozen sardines are more widely available than fresh, that’s what he’s using for today’s preparation.
At all of the restaurants overseen by Chef Clark, seasonality is a prime consideration. “It’s very important to us to get things at the height of their season,” he says. But things are a little different when it comes to sardines, he explains. “Here, we actually promote in the reverse,” he explains. “If your location prohibits you from getting and eating it within the day it was harvested, it’s actually better to get it frozen.”
To prepare his fresh sardines, Chef Clark uses the backside of a fillet knife to scrape off the scales of the fish. They fly off in all directions, so it’s best to do this in a sink. After a couple of scrapes on each side, the skin feels smooth to the touch, then he rinses the fish under cold water.
Next using the blade of his fillet knife, he removes the head by cutting it off just below the gills. Then he guts the fish, slicing it in half along the belly from the top to the tail. He rinses the fish once more, and then exchanges his fillet knife for a pair of fish tweezers.
“There’s one set of bones you need to take out—the chokers—they run along the belly,” Chef Clark advises. “There’s bones all through them, but I don’t bother with them all. I only take out the chokers from the side. When you pull them out, you’ll see why they’re called chokers—they have a little ‘v’ at the top. It looks like a little boot,” he says holding one up for me to see.
Using his fingers to feel for the bones, he carefully plucks each one, a process that takes about 15 minutes.
“It’s very zenful. I love it,” he says. “If I have a very stressful day, this is one of the things that would help me come down—I’m going to go clean sardines for a while.”
While Chef Clark admits sardines can be challenging to debone, he notes that they can simply be filleted, washed, and put directly on the grill: “Just peel the bones out after they’re cooked,” he says.
Bones removed, the sardines are ready for the next step—a process that will help to quell some of the sardine’s inherent fishiness. “The most success I’ve had with sardines is salting them first—a quick cure. James Barber taught me that,” he says, giving a nod to the famous Canadian chef who passed away in 2007. He sprinkles some kosher salt, sugar, and freshly ground dill seed onto the sardines and sets them aside.
While Chef Clark preps the vegetables for the potato hash that will accompany the sardines, he talks about the source of his sustainable seafood passion. “Monterey Bay was the place I could trust to go to help me figure out what I should and shouldn’t be serving as far as sustainability goes,” he recalls.
In 1997 the Monterey Bay Aquarium initiated the Seafood Watch program, which later served as the model for the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program. “Before ’99, we weren’t even using the word ‘sustainable,’” he says. “We were looking at responsibly harvested products. It’s only when Monterey Bay got up and running that the association to seafood came to be used.”
He takes the diced potatoes and puts them in saucepan with a liberal amount of melted duck fat. “I’m going to confit these potatoes. I just want to get them soft,” he says.
After the potatoes are cooked, he drains them, then he sautés the rest of the vegetables. While they’re cooking, he turns his attention back to the sardines that have been curing for about an hour.
He pours birch syrup over the sardines. “I like cooking with it,” he says and offers me a taste. It has a stronger flavor than maple syrup, reminiscent of molasses and pine. “In this dish, it’s going to help caramelize the skin, and it’s going to convince people to eat sardines,” he says, laughing. “Anytime somebody doesn’t like something, add sugar to it, and that’ll help!”
Chef Clark puts the sardines, skin-side up, in a cast-iron pan and places them under the broiler for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, he toasts the bread and finishes the potato hash with a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley.
“This is definitely a summer dish,” he says. “It’s light—you should be sitting on the patio.” After he plates the dish, that’s just what we do. We sit down at one of C’s harborside patio tables and dig in.
Where to Find Sardines
Astoria Pacific Seafoods
55 Pier 2 Port Docks, Astoria, OR
Jessie’s Ilwaco Fish Company
117 Howerton Ave, Ilwaco, WA
The Salmon Shop
#140-123 Carrie Cates Court, North Vancouver, B.C.
By Peter Szymczak in the July / August 2009 edition of Northwest Palate.