Many moons ago I frequently visited Southern Spain with my then boyfriend. In town was a favourite tapas bar of ours. Packed with locals, whole families from grandparents to newborns slung over shoulders, the atmosphere was irrepressibly boisterous. We drank cold red wine and ate fresh caught morsels of seafood with all the salty oily juices mopped up with bits of bread. Fresh sardines were a must have, picking the flesh off the tender bones and sucking on our fingers, the rich flavour, we were often momentarily eyes closed blissed out.
Decades on and in Chicago there is so little time left to grill out so now is our moment for the last hurrah. Chill your red wine, eat with your fingers and hold onto the thought that these days will return.
The herb salad will work brilliantly with any rich dish throughout the year.
Grilled Sardines and Bread with Herb Salad
2 lb. fresh sardines (ask fishmonger to de-scale)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 bay leaf per sardine (fresh is best but dried just fine)
1/2 lemon slice per sardine
1 baguette or ciabatta
2 cups flat leaf parsley
1 cup fresh dill
1 cup rough chopped pitted green olives (Cerignola or Manzanilla are excellent choices)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup hazelnuts, roasted and roughly chopped
While it may take a bit of work to find fresh sardines, once you have them, this dish comes together rather effortlessly. If you are blessed with a good local fish market, thank your lucky stars and tip your fishmonger. Throwing a party? This recipe can easily be scaled up. As a main dish, plan for about 3 sardines per person.
Rinse sardines. If any scales remain, gently scrape them off with a small knife. Season inside and out with salt, pepper and crushed cumin. Insert the bayleaf and 1/2 lemon slice into the belly of the sardine. Set aside until it’s time to grill while you assemble the accompaniments.
Slice the bread and drizzle with olive oil. Place on a tray for easy transport to the grill.
The hand-torn herb salad is wonderfully rustic and a lovely counterbalance to the sardines. Tear off whole parsley leaves and large pieces of dill and combine in a bowl. Zest 1 lemon into long thin strips and add to the herby mix. Add olives and vinegar before tossing well. Top with hazelnuts.
Cut both oranges into wedges for serving alongside the salad. You will direct your guests to squeeze these wedges over their salad and sardines if desired.
And now it’s time to grill.
Prepare the grill for direct heat. Grill the bread until golden and some char. Return to tray and set aside.
Drizzle sardines lightly with olive oil. Grill about 2 minutes per side. Serve immediately with the grilled bread, herb salad and orange wedges.