Good things come in small packages. Sardines and mackerel are proof of this adage. These are fish for the converted, fish for people who truly enjoy the flavor of fish.
My first experience with fish of this sort came on a fishing trip in Maine when I was about 12. We were fishing freshwater, but we had brought along canned mackerel for quick lunches. I decided I'd try one. I turned the key on that little can and it opened up a whole world of briny, fatty deliciousness. I still love canned mackerel and canned sardines. Don't get me started: Ever try a sardine bánh mi? No? Well, trust me, you've been missing out.
Sardines and mackerel are plentiful fish, whether you're buying them canned or fresh. They are easy to come by and inexpensive. In a world where buying wild fish can be a minefield from a sustainability standpoint, these fish offer a haven, and a delicious haven it is.
When buying sardines, look for shiny, firm fish. They should still be flexed in rigor when you buy them, and make sure their bellies are intact.
Once you've found the sardines, you'll need to decide what to do with them.
One of my very favorite dishes — one I could eat every day — is the pasta con le sarde we've served for years at Providence. It's a play on a traditional Sicilian recipe. The pasta includes fresh sardines, olive oil, fennel, pine nuts, raisins and bread crumbs. It's crave-worthy. Grilled sardines are also delicious with nothing more than sea salt and lemon.
Fish this flavorful does the heavy lifting; you really don't need to do much in order to make them memorable.
If you want something that's a little more involved and definitely dinner party material, try quickly pickling the sardines. Serve these on grilled slices of baguette you've smeared with artichoke purée and then top them with roasted tomatoes. It's a terrific appetizer, or you could serve it with a big salad of arugula dressed with simple vinaigrette for more of a main course salad.
Really, any preparation that includes salt and a touch of acid will do: The salt to bring out the flavor in the fish and the acid to tame the fat. It's hard to go wrong with sardines.
Mackerel is just as flavorful and easier to prepare, since it usually comes already scaled and filleted. I particularly like Spanish, or sierra, mackerel, which has a shiny spotted skin that does beautiful things when crisped in a pan or on a grill. This fish is also particularly abundant and inexpensive, and is recommended as a best choice based on sustainability by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
One way I love to serve it during the summer is alongside a piperade, a slightly spicy mix of peppers, tomatoes and chorizo. This mixture works with all sorts of fish: mackerel, sardines, swordfish or bluefish.
Sardines and mackerel, like black licorice, aren't for everybody. I get that, but you really need to give them a try. My son, one of the pickiest eaters on the planet, hounds me, nearly every Sunday, to take him to Park's Barbeque for their broiled mackerel. Go figure. If he can relish them, so can you.