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Feel the Love — When It Comes to Sardines

Sardines suffer from a bad rep for the most part.

So many of us have stinky memories of those tiny, pungent fish lurking inside pull-tab tins that our parents or grand-parents forced upon us.

But I’m here to plead with you to give sardines a chance.

At a time when so many other seafood species are on the verge of extinction, sardines are one of the most sustainable fish around. They’re super cheap, and loaded with good-for-you omega-3s, too.

That’s why a local group, whimsically named the “Sardinistas,” is waging a campaign to get you and me to better appreciate this much-maligned fish. Find out more about this group by reading my story in the November issue of San Francisco magazine.

Bay Area chefs already have courted a love affair with sardines. Find fresh ones grilled on many a menu here, their flesh silky and smoky tasting.

Fresh sardines aren’t always easy to come by at local fish markets, though, because the majority caught in Monterey Bay are exported elsewhere.

But canned ones are easily found at any supermarket.

And even die-hard sardine haters are sure to love them in “Fish Cakes with Caper-Parsley Sauce.”

The recipe, adapted from one published in Gourmet magazine seven years ago, actually has three types of fish in it. And two of them are despised by a good number of folks. Yes, one is the sardine. The other? Anchovy.

But hear me out before you pass judgment.

Although the recipe calls for three canned sardines, I used the entire can, just for good measure. The sardines are chopped up and mixed with flaked, fresh halibut, along with copious amounts of green onion, lemon, parsley and bread crumbs. The mixture gets formed into round cakes that are seared until crispy. They’re served with a punchy sauce of pureed capers, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, and — yes — anchovies.

The result is a really flavorful, much more complex fish cakeĀ  — that doesn’t taste “fishy” at all — with a sauce so wonderfully tangy, salty, and assertive that you’ll want to drizzle it on and on.

Serve it as a first course, light lunch, or dinner with salad and crusty bread. Indeed, the fish cake and sauce would make one mighty fine sandwich, too.

There you have it: Three types of sustainable fish in one dish that’s sure to do a body good.

Fish Cakes with Caper-Parsley Sauce

(makes 6)

1 pound 1-inch-thick halibut fillets

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped green onions

1 (4.375-ounce) tin of skinless, boneless sardines packed in oil, drained and chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

2 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from crustless French bread, divided use

1 to 2 large eggs

Caper-Parsley Sauce (recipe follows)

Sprinkle halibut fillets with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add halibut fillets and saute until just opaque in center, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to plate; cool. Wipe skillet with paper towels.

Flake halibut fillets into large bowl. Mix in green onions, sardines, chopped fresh parsley, flour, garlic and lemon peel. Mix in 1 cup breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper; mix in one egg. If mixture doesn’t seem to be holding together when you try to form a cake, mix in one more egg. Shape mixture into six 3-inch-diameter cakes. Transfer remaining 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs to a bowl. Coat fish cakes with breadcrumbs, pressing to adhere.

Heat remaining 4 tablespoons oil in reserved skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish cakes and cook until brown and crisp, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer to plates; serve fish cakes with Caper-Parsley Sauce.

Adapted from Gourmet, March 2002

Caper-Parsley Sauce

(Makes about 1 1/3 cups)

2/3 cup olive oil

6 tablespoons drained capers

6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

6 anchovy fillets, chopped

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 large garlic cloves, halved

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until a coarse puree forms. Season sauce with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

Note: The sauce also can be used on roast beef, hard-boiled eggs or potato salad.

From Bon Appetit, February 2002

More: Try another strong-tasting, sustainable fish — salted mackerel — in Steamed Pork Cake (hom yu jing jiu yok bang)