Eat sardines often and you’ll live a long, healthy life. This is not only common knowledge but a ritual in Croatia and throughout the Mediterranean.
Sardines are a great source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and vitamin D. In the past, people all over the Croatian coast relied solely on the sardine diet to get their sustenance. This earned our srdela (sardine in Croatian) the title of hraniteljica (the livelihood giver).
During their fishing season (from spring to autumn) sardines come to our plate fresh. But this small oily fish is great for canning too. Let sardines in oil be your choice for a quick snack throughout the year. But whenever you can, cook whole fresh sardines.
Croatians love grilling their sardines. We use grapevine to make fire and this infuses our fish with sweet and fruity smoke. But don’t worry if making an open fire is not an option for you.
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Sardines that are baked or roasted in the oven taste the same (minus the smoke). They turn out crispy and tasting of the sea.
How to eat sardines
Before we dive into the sardines recipe, we need to cover some basic principles. Namely, how to eat sardines. And this is not just fun background story - it’s part of the recipe too.
Eat sardines often
Having oily fish on your menu is part of the Mediterranean diet. And you know that this diet makes you healthy and happy.
Eat sardines whole
Remember the high vitamin D count in Mediterranean sardines? The best way to bank on that goodness is to eat them whole. Do not fillet them and do not remove the spine (especially if they are small). Eat the tails, even the heads, too.
Never eat sardines for dinner
Sardines are oily and sit heavy on the stomach. In Croatian we call oily fish plava riba (blue fish) as opposed to bijela riba (whitefish/rockfish). Eat sardines early in the day: for marenda (around 11 o’clock) or lunch.
Never wash down sardines with water
Always eat sardines with a glass of red wine. Plavac mali variety is the traditional match, but if this wine is too strong for you - have a bevanda. In other words, dilute your red wine with plain water. Just remember our famous saying and don’t hold back on the wine.
Riba pliva tri puta - prvo u moru, pa u ulju i zayim u vinu.
(The fish swims three times - first in the sea, then in oil and finally in wine.)
How to cook fresh sardines
Today we are making oven baked sardines. But no matter which way you cook whole fresh sardines, there are some basic guidelines to follow. Let me lay the grounds so you can follow my sardines recipe below.
Don't remove their heads
In all honesty, they should not be gutted either, but I always do. Hard-core Croatian locals believe that small fish (whitebait) can be eaten whole. There is even an expression for fish or squid that gets prepared without gutting: na šporko (the dirty style).
Never wash sardines after gutting them
The point of eating seafood is to enjoy the sea flavour. Washing sardines in tap water removes their essence. If you're cleaning sardines next to the sea, feel free to rinse them right inside the sea water. Otherwise, leave them as they are.
Don't leave sardines wet
Sardines need to be dry before meeting the source of the heat. Be it a grill rack, a frying pan or the oven, pat them dry with paper towels. This way they will come out crispy, instead of soggy and drenched in oil.
Salt them generously
All you need in terms of seasoning is salt and a tiny drop of oil. When you prep them, use only as much oil as a light brush. Sprinkle salt over them before cooking and once again when they’re done. Just as you would do with chips/crisps.
Don't overcook sardines
Give sardines about 5-6 minutes on the grill or pan - just until their eyes turns white. Turn them over and cook the other side slightly shorter. The oven-baked sardines don’t even need turning. You’re looking to get their skin crispy and ruddy.
And we are finally down to the recipe for baked sardines Croatian style. I am so happy you’ll be feasting on our Croatian sardines even if you don’t have access to the open grill.
- 1 kg fresh sardines (2.2 lbs )
- 1-2 tsp olive oil
- salt to taste
- 4 glasses red wine
- Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Line a baking tray with baking (parchment) paper.
- Gut the sardines but leave the heads on. The heads will keep the flavour of the fish and the meat will stay moist inside.
- Do not wash the fish; just pat it dry with paper towels.
- Season with salt and brush them with a drop of olive oil – not too much as the sardines are already oily.
- Arrange the sardines on the baking paper so they don't touch each other.
- Bake for 15 minutes until they get a crispy golden finish. Sprinkle some more salt over the sardines.
- Pair sardines with potato salad and wash them down with a glass of red wine or bevanda.