There was a time not so long ago when millions of pounds of fresh sardines were caught and processed in Monterey. During the 1940’s, a combination of over-fishing, pollution and climate change plummeted the sardine population, shuttering dozens of canneries and putting thousands of people out of work. Over the last few years the sardine population has started to recover and commercial boats can once again be seen fishing for them in the bay. Sadly most of the locally caught sardines are destined to be shipped overseas where most will be processed into fish-oil, pet food and other fish-based products. A few high-grade sardines will be packed and canned - some even making their way back here to the Central Coast. These tiny fish are so labor intensive that practically none are sold fresh in the US.
Sardines have a rich-red meat that is covered in an iridescent skin so fragile it will tear with even the most gentle touch. Due partly to their high fat content, the sardines do not last long and must be eaten immediately after they are caught. A fresh sardine cannot be compared to a canned sardine- any more than a can of tuna can be compared with a sashimi grade tuna loin. Fresh sardines have a firm texture with a buttery, mouth feel and a clean-refined flavor, perfect for eating raw or lightly cured.
We received some fresh sardines and decided to showcase them on the dinner menu. We fileted the sardines, carefully removing the tiny bones before dusting them with local sea salt. After fifteen minutes we rinsed the filets and patted them dry. The filets were then brushed with a meyer lemon-fennel pickling liquid. We cleaned the spine and fried it until crisp (my favorite part of eating sardines). A few pickled-carrot chips and local olive oil finished the plate. The dish is reminiscent of a traditional Spanish escabeche with our own Big Sur twist.