Let’s hear it for sustainable seafood! Ned Bell is also the founder of Chefs for Oceans, a not-for-profit organization that spreads awareness of overfishing and sustainable catching methods. His new cookbook, Lure, is an in-depth guide to keeping it fresh, safe and responsible. If you’ve never enjoyed the pleasure of sardines on toast, your bagel and lox is about to face some stiff competition.
A staple in Mediterranean Europe and Britain, sardines on toast has never quite taken hold here in North America. I’d like to change that. Sardines are an exceptional source of vitamin B12 — essential to our brain health, nervous system, and the production of red blood cells — and vitamin D, which we need for healthy bones. For the most tender results, brine these pretty little fish for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours before cooking.
Chef’s Note: You can ask your fishmonger to butterfly the sardines for you, but it’s simple to do yourself. Use kitchen scissors or a sharp, thin knife to cut off the head, just behind the gills and front fin. You can cut off the tail or leave it on. Carefully, so as not to tear the delicate meat, cut or slice along the belly to open it up. Scrape out the innards. Turn the fish belly-side down and gently press on the backbone, which will help loosen it from the flesh. Turn it over and carefully pull the backbone away from the flesh. If you’ve left the tail on, just snip it where the backbone meets the tail to free it. The sardines may be eaten simply brined or broiled.
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup sea salt
- 4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pound tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 4 fresh sardines, butterflied (see Note)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided), plus more for drizzling
- 4 thick slices artisan bread
- 1/2 lemon
- Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
For the brine
Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for a few minutes or until the sugar has dissolved, set aside to cool, and then refrigerate until cold.
For the relish
Combine all the ingredients in a large nonreactive bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper if desired. Put 1/2 cup of the mixture into a blender and puree until smooth. Set both aside.
For the sardines
Soak the sardines in the cold brine for 30 minutes or refrigerate in the brine for up to 24 hours
When ready to serve, preheat the broiler and set the oven rack 4 inches below it. Remove the fish from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Set the fish on a baking sheet and rub all over with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Set the baking sheet under the broiler and cook the fish for about 2 minutes or until the skin is browned. Turn the fish over and broil the other side for 2 to 3 more minutes or until the skin is browned and the flesh is opaque and flakes easily. Transfer to a plate.
Set the oven rack 6 inches below it. Brush one side of each bread slice with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and set on the baking sheet. Broil for 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown.
To serve, spread each toast with tomato relish. Lay a sardine on top. Drizzle with the tomato relish puree, some additional olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.