The simple beauty of Portuguese-style grilled sardines

Jun 29, 2018

You could call fish the underdog of the summer cookout. When you have people getting psyched about racks of ribs and charring porterhouses, grilled fish doesn’t always get the love it deserves. But when you hear Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes and host Francis Lam speak so passionately about grilling sardines in the style of Mendes's home country, you can't help but think of how wonderful plump fresh sardines must taste with a bit of char on them. Get your grill hot and Mendes's recipe for Grilled Sardines with Green Peppers from his new book My Lisbon: A Cookbook from Portugal's City of Light.

Francis Lam: I wanted to talk to you about grilling food for a couple of reasons. First, because my wife's family is Portuguese, and I have fallen in love with grilled sardines; I want to be able to impress them next time I see them. Second, sardines, like mackerel, are a small, rich silvery fish that are incredibly delicious. I think people in the U.S. are intimidated by them, but the Portuguese have truly taken the appreciation of sardines and mackerel to the utmost extent. You guys really know what you're doing with these little fish.

Nuno Mendes: Absolutely. Mackerel and sardines are so ingrained in our food and food culture; it’s synonymous with any Portuguese person. We've been eating this since our childhood. I remember the first time I ate sardines, I did get quite a few spines suck my throat, but it's all part of the learning process. I fell in love with him from a very early age.

Nuno Mendes
Photo Provided by Author

FL: How do you shop for them? I think that's probably the first thing that trips people up, right?

NM: When you’re shopping for them at a market you can see the difference between the frozen ones and the fresh ones. With the fresh ones there’s this shimmering that you have on the fish; they literally glow and are super shiny. Their gills are perfectly intact and the eyes are perfectly clear. You can smell it, but it’s not a strong smell of fish. They hold well. They have almost a slight rigor mortis; they are quite tight and firm, not flabby at all – extremely firm. When sardines start getting a little older they lose the beautiful shine that they have.

I always prefer them to be a little smaller; I think they're a little sweeter. The flavor profile of the meat is incredibly sweet. It’s an oily fish with a nice sweetness and richness to them. I must say that as much as I love the way we cook them in Portugal, I feel like sometimes they might be slightly overcooked. One of the things you have to be careful about with sardines is not to overcook them. Also, because they are such a bony fish, understanding where the bone lines are so you can basically either score them before you grill them or maybe butterfly them and then put them back on the grill. If you grill them just a little under, the meat is perfect.

You always want to salt them really heavily. When the salted fish hits the grill it creates this beautiful steam that draws the moisture from the fish and also creates a barrier so the meat doesn't stick to the grill. Rock salt. Maldon salt. In Portugal, we use sea salt.

FL: Big flaky salt. And you salt it right before you put on the grill.

NM: I salt them a little bit before and then hit them on a really hot grill. Make sure you find the hot spot on the grill to give them a hard sear. Once they're marked and not going to stick, transfer them to a cooler part of the grill let them ride for a couple of minutes and then take them off. They cook so quickly, and you want to have a little bit of tension when you bite into the meat, so you definitely want to wait. But again, you don't want them super overcooked. I do recommend you scale them first. I think a lot of people in Portugal don't scale them, but it becomes very hard to navigate through it.

And I must say this from personal experience, and it's something very interesting. When I was doing the book I was cooking sardines on a rooftop grill in Lisbon, so we were reasonably close to the sea and the riverfront. I left the sardines in a little salt outside on the tray, and we had seagulls come in and start munching on them while I was inside. So, if you're by the sea and you cooking sardines, watch for the seagulls. They like to sit around and wait for a sucker to go in into the flat; that’s their attack strategy. They stole my sardines!

You can make Nuno Mendes's recipe for Grilled Sardines with Green Peppers at home. Photo provided by author.

FL: One more question. Do you treat the grill in particular way? I know a lot of chefs like to oil a rag and then rub the oil onto the grill. Do you do anything like that to make sure they don’t stick?

NM: I try not to oil the grill or oil the sardines. Maybe just a touch of oil on the sardines or rub a little bit of oil on the part of the grill you’re about to use. If you put too much oil on the grill it’s going to burn, it’s going to smoke up or flame up. And again, if you do the same to the fish you have the same result. You want to try to go as hot as possible. And don't flip them too early because you want to sear it and achieve a good seal on that.

FL: When you flip them do you prefer to use a spatula to lift them up or tongs?

NM: I always prefer spatulas. Tongs are not delicate enough; they're too hard and they bruise the fish too much. I prefer to use something just as delicate as the fish.

My Lisbon by Nuno Mendes

FL: And how do you like to serve them? Assuming, of course, you can get to them before the seagulls. In the traditional Portuguese style, they are serve straight grilled, maybe with a piece of lemon. But do you like to pair them with garnishes or sauces?

NM: One of the typical things in Portugal is to serve them with a roasted green pepper salad. And it's very traditional as well when you get a really good quality rustic bread, you rest them on the bread. The oils from the sardines – all that juiciness and salt – goes into the bread.

My favorite way to eat sardines is to drop them on the grill. On the side, you get some green bell peppers and grill them really hard on all sides. Take them out and transfer them to a bowl. Cover them and let them steam so you can take the skin off. Once the skin is off, you julienne. Take slices of the grill roasted pepper and get a nice white sweet onion – one that you can eat raw – and slice that paper thin as well. You can drop them on the grill if they're too hard, but I like them raw. Marinate them with a little lemon juice and a little bit of salt. You could do slivers of garlic if you want. And then we use a little bit of marjoram on top. You can use basil as well, which is nice but it's not as Portuguese. Serve that on the side with a couple wedges of lemon and some piri piri chili oil or a good splash of olive oil over the whole thing.

I like to dress my sardines the moment they come off of the grill. I rest them on a big, thick slice of country bread – it could be slightly grilled or not. If you want to get fancy, rub a little garlic and olive oil on the bread and then drop the sardines on top and let them cool down. Then eat them from there. Start by eating the sardines first. Remove all the bones. Then you end up with this lovely bread has got all the sardine flavor; you eat the bread, and it is very nice.

FL: I can't wait to go see my in-laws!

NM: Yes. I think they will be stoked for that.