Chef Chris Gould, co-proprietor of Central Provisions in Portland, can’t understand why nobody in Maine eats sardines anymore. Well, not many of us. After all, for more than 150 years, sardine canning was one of the state’s biggest industries, employing thousands of Mainers in as many as 50 canneries; the last one closed four years ago.
Beyond that, sardines are inexpensive, flavorful and – unlike many other fish in the sea – there are plenty of them.
These are some of the reasons that wild Atlantic herring – one of 20 species around the world that get called “sardines” – get a triple-green thumbs up. They are among the most common fish swimming in the Gulf of Maine, according to the Maine Sea Grant program at the University of Maine, and as fast-growing fish are considered to be a very sustainable source of protein.
Brown Trading Company in Portland sells Atlantic herring for about $4 per pound (Mediterranean sardines cost more than $17 per pound when they are available) and usually stocks them Thursdays through Sundays in the summer months. (They will gut and scale the sardines upon request.)
But despite all these excellent reasons to eat them, most Maine sardines get used for lobster bait.
Gould is doing his part to change that. Earlier this month, he salted 20 pounds of Maine sardines to sock away for the restaurant’s use later in the year when they aren’t available fresh. Meanwhile, he is grilling fresh sardines and using them to top crostini with spicy house-made harissa and local radishes. The crostini, part of Central Provisions’ small plates menu, cost $8; Gould priced them reasonably to encourage diners to try them. So far, it’s working. Each time they’ve been on the menu, the (exotically spiced) sardines have sold out.
GRILLED MAINE SARDINE CROSTINI WITH HARISSA
Central Provisions Chef Chris Gould makes his own harissa, a sweet and spicy condiment used in North African cooking. Store the extra in the refrigerator and use it in everything from carrot salads to grilled lamb dishes; if you don’t want to make it, you can buy it at specialty stores. Gould dusts the grilled sardines with an exotic spice mixture that includes cocoa nibs, Urfa pepper and sumac (recipe below). He suggests Middle Eastern za’atar spice mix as an alternative for home cooks.
2 red peppers
1 jalapeno pepper
1 carrot, diced
1 onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons chile oil
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon toasted ground cumin
1 tablespoon toasted ground coriander
1 tablespoon toasted ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 cups carrot juice
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 fresh Maine sardines (Atlantic herring), scaled and gutted
Oil for oiling grill grates
4 slices sourdough bread
2 teaspoons Gould’s spice mix or za’atar
1 French breakfast radish, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sliced chives
To make the harissa, place the bell and chile peppers on a hot grill. Turn every few minutes, until skins are blackened on all sides, 5 to 8 minutes. Cool in a covered bowl, then peel off the charred skin (gloves are a good idea). Cut off the tops, trim, scrape and discard the seeds and ribs.
Place peppers, carrot, onion, garlic and chile oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the onions and carrots soften slightly. Stir in ground spices and cook them with the vegetables for another 5 minutes. Add carrot juice and stock. Simmer the mixture for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into a blender and puree. With the blender on, slowly drizzle in canola oil to emulsify. Season with lemon juice and salt to taste. Set aside.
To make the crostini, gently wash the sardines and pat them dry.
Rub grill grates on a very hot grill with a paper towel soaked in oil. Grill bread slices so there are grill marks on both sides of each slice.
Rub grill grates again with the oil-soaked paper towel. Grill sardines for 1 to 3 minutes per side until they are crispy and well browned. Remove top and bottom fillets from the bones of the sardines. Sprinkle fillets with Gould’s spice mix or za’atar.
Slather each slice of grilled bread with 1 tablespoon harissa. Top each slice with 2 sardine fillets. Garnish with radish, chives, salt and lemon zest. Serve immediately.
COCOA NIB SPICE RUB FOR SARDINES
Chef Chris Gould of Central Provisions in Portland dusts sardines straight from the grill with this spice mix and uses them to top harissa-brushed crostini. Urfa pepper is a rich, fruity chile often used in Turkish cooking; find it in some Asian groceries, specialty kitchen shops and online. This mixture will keep for about a month, but it’s best fresh.
1 tablespoon Urfa pepper
1 tablespoon sumac
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoons fenugreek
3 tablespoons chopped cocoa nibs
1 teaspoon sea salt
Toast the spices in a dry skillet over medium heat. Watch carefully or they will burn; it’ll take only a couple of minutes. Use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind the spices. Mix ground spices with the cocoa nibs and salt.