The local sardines now sold throughout California are so rich and lush-tasting that they can stand up to the smoky, charred flavors of grilling. Chef David LeFevre of Los Angeles's Water Grill adds even more character to these incredible little fish by serving them with a puckery tarragon, caper and pine nut relish. A fishmonger can bone and butterfly the sardines, making them especially easy to cook and eat.
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1 medium eggplant, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for grilling
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped tarragon
1 small shallot, very finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon finely chopped roasted red pepper
2 teaspoons capers, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
12 fresh sardines, boned, heads and tails intact
How to Make It
Preheat the oven to 375°. Brush the cut sides of the eggplant with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake the eggplant for about 45 minutes, until very soft. Let cool, then carefully scoop out the flesh and coarsely chop it. Transfer the eggplant to a medium bowl.
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar with the water, 2 tablespoons of the tarragon, half of the shallot and two-thirds of the garlic and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat until nearly evaporated, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a blender. Add the chicken stock and one-fourth of the eggplant and puree until smooth. Stir the puree into the remaining chopped eggplant and season with salt and pepper.
In a small skillet, toast the pine nuts over moderately high heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden, about 3 minutes; transfer to a plate. In the same skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add the remaining shallot and garlic and cook over low heat until softened, about 2 minutes. Transfer the shallot and garlic to a bowl and let cool. Whisk in the lemon zest, roasted red pepper, capers and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup of tarragon and the pine nuts.
Preheat a grill. Brush the sardines with olive oil and season both sides generously with salt and pepper. Grill the sardines over high heat, turning them once, until lightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon the eggplant puree onto plates and top with the sardines. Spoon the tarragon dressing on top and serve.
Robustly flavored sardines pair best with firm, crisp whites like Pinot Grigio that cut through their oily richness. Though most Pinot Grigios are from northern Italy, more and more are being produced in California, where they tend to be fuller-bodied and have riper fruit flavors.
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