Once, I posted a story about a porterhouse with a pictures of a thoroughly gnawed bone. That's all that was left of the steak by the time I remembered to take a picture. Some food is just meant to be eaten, not photographed. That post didn't get any comments, which disappointed one of my favorite readers -- my Dad. "You can see that someone really enjoyed that steak," he said. "How come no one noticed?" He'd probably say the same thing about these sardines, and he'd be absolutely right -- someone really enjoyed these sardines. That someone was me. Seared whole sardines is one of my private pleasures.
I have one word for you: bones. That's the reason I eat sardines all alone. My students, my husband, and my daughter find them too bony. My daughter has an excuse. She is 15 months old, and I believe that kids should be able to talk in full sentences before eating bony fish. But what's the other people's problem, I don't know. The bones are part of the fun. These slightly prickly obstacles to the most mouth-watering fish on earth add just a hint of danger and excitement. The reality is that they are all soft and edible, so if you were to eat one, nothing terrible would happen. But if you use the right eating technique, you'll avoid almost all the bones.
How to eat a sardine
First, you have to imagine that you are a cartoon cat who puts the whole fish in his mouth and removes a nicely cleaned fish skeleton. Now you have to act the part. Let's start by putting away the silverware. Have you ever seen a cat eat fish with a fork and a knife? Exactly. Pick up a sardine with your hands and gently lift one of the fillets with your teeth. If you pull gently, the fillet with come right off leaving all the big bones behind it. Now flip the sardine and repeat on the other side. Enjoy all the crispy bits and don't forget to mop up the escaped juices with a piece of bread.
Now that you know how to eat sardines, I hope you'll feel more comfortable ordering them in restaurants and maybe even cooking them at home.
How to clean sardines
I think the part that makes everyone a little nervous about cooking whole fish at home is cleaning them. So let's talk about that.
Option 1: go to a really good fishmonger and ask them to clean sardines for you. The only fishmonger in the Boston area who does a good job by my standards is the New Deal in Cambridge. Of course, you don't want to abuse this complimentary service, and only ask Carl to clean such little fish as sardines if he doesn't have a line of customers waiting.
Option 2: clean sardines yourself. Little fish are much easier to clean than big ones and don't make a big mess since their scales don't go flying when you try to remove them. I leave scaling and gutting to Carl, unless I am dealing with sardines. They are so small and cute that cleaning them is kind of fun. Put your sardines in the sink and rub them gently with a spoon from tail to head under cold running water. Don't use a scaler appropriate for bigger fish as it might tear the delicate skin of sardines. Cut off the heads, and cut open the bellies making a slit from the anal fin (that's the part of the belly closest to the tail) to the head. Scoop out the guts and rinse the bellies under cold running water. If there are any loose rib bones sticking out, grab them firmly with your fingers and yank them out.
That wasn't so bad, was it? Now we are ready to cook.
How to sear sardines
The first step is to dry your sardines very thoroughly on paper towels. I can't emphasize this enough. They need to be completely dry inside and out, or they won't crisp and will splatter like crazy.
Rub the bottom of a non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron skillet with a paper towel dunked in canola oil. Set the skillet over moderately-high heat.
Sprinkle sardines with salt and pepper on both sides, and when the skillet is hot, place as many sardines as can fit in one layer. If sardines don't fit, sear them in batches. If you have too few sardines for your skillet and end up with empty spots, cover these spots with pieces of bread to prevent them from smoking (the goal of the bread is to prevent smoke alarms from going off, it's not for eating). Let sardines cook without moving until nicely browned on the first side, about 2 minutes. Regulate the heat so that they are browning, but not burning.
Flip the sardines and turn down the heat to medium. Cook on the other side until nicely browned, 2-3 minutes. Sardines are so small, there is no need to worry about doneness. If they are brown on the outside, they are cooked through inside. Remove sardines to a plate, give them a squirt of lemon, and sprinkle with some parsley, cilantro, or an herb of your choice.