One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Astoria was the plethora of butchers and fish shops around the turn of every corner. It's a food wonderland at your disposal. (Not to mention the fruit and vegetable stand right below my apartment. Can you get more convenient?) Just on my walk to the post office the other day, I encountered three fish markets.
One of our first Greek restaurant experiences after the move to Astoria was a restaurant where I was forced to choose between sensible shrimp or the boldness of sardines. I'd always heard fresh sardines were worthy of a try but shrimp was safer. I've regretted passing up the sardines ever since because it was so uncharacteristic of me to make the safe menu selection. How disappointing of me. There's no better way to remedy this than to return home from the fish market with a mass of mussels and sardines for dinner.
There's not much on the Internet in the way of sardine recipes or in any of my cookbooks, except in Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything," a book I am generally so-so on. The book informed me that sardines are a popular appetizer throughout Europe and that in the United States, sardines are usually sold "gutted with their heads on." Wrong. Granted, it was my fault for assuming this was so and not even thoroughly inspecting them in the fish market.
Lucky for me (I think...), the book also provided a rough guideline to gutting the things, and Ryan agreed to help. How romantic to gut fish together, considering it was Valentine's Day. So Ryan took my kitchen shears to cut through the belly of the fish and I pulled all the guts out. Despite all my complaining, it wasn't so bad of a task except that it's a tiny bit disgusting, and I was sorry the process had to be repeated 12 times. Why had I gotten so many sardines again?
And it never ended. Each one had to be washed, scaled, stuffed with herbs and slathered with butter. I was getting mighty sick of those sardines and it wasn't even time to eat. Then they pop into the broiler for 3 minutes on each side. After all our hard work, it was time to enjoy those sardines. It's really remarkable how many bones are in them. So much so that one sardine yields maybe two baby bites of unboned fish. But you chew those paranoid still of more bones. Bones, bones, and more bones. We finally just gave up. Ryan thinks lobster isn't worth the effort it yields, which I disagree with. But these really weren't worth the effort.
Fortunately, I had also sauteed fennel and steamed mussels, which were both a smashing success. So two out of three isn't bad. Plus, I could have made a whole meal from the mussels and bread so we didn't even miss the sardines.
The mussels were quick and easy.. And not too bad to clean, considering how much time I put into the sardines. I just soaked the mussels in water for an hour or so and then trimmed off the beard with my kitchen shears (My kitchen shears really got a work out that day.).
The mussels were cooked with some white wine, herbs and a pat of butter in a pan with a lid over them for about seven minutes. The whole process was quick, easy and deliriously delicious. It was the opposite of the sardine fiasco. So skip any fresh sardine fantasy you may have and go straight for the mussels.