Sardines are gorgeous, cheap and very healthy. Okay, they have bones. Nothing's perfect.
Why do people like tuna?
Fish have bones. Very big fish have large bones, easily avoided – fishmongers cleverly cut between them. Is that why people like tuna? Frankly I can think of no better reason to like this meaty, dry, fairly flavourless fish (I’ve never tried bluefin and very good of me too as it’s overfished and non-sustainable) which is only palatable when raw.
Can you eat sardines with bones?
Little fish have little, brittle, annoying bones. Hard-core fish eaters pay no mind to them and eat bones and all, in whiting, sprats, whitebait, anchovies and sardines.
Those are the type of people who will sensibly eat little brown shrimp shell-on and head-on while I sit there meticulously peeling each tiny shellfish until I’m left with a microscopic (admittedly delicious) morsel of flesh. Pernickety, that’s what I am. Never had it tough.
Deboning sardines? Don't go there
So I’m a bit fussy about sardines – even though I like the taste, like miniature mackerels, with crispy grilled skin – but the bones! The bones!
Now the other day my fishmonger had some filleted* fresh sardines (two reasons to buy them – such delicate fishes that they go off as you look at them, hence most often frozen straight after caught) so I set to, got a pair of eyebrow tweezers which I use for deboning fish and managed to achieve almost bone-free flesh on the little rascals.
That was effort, but the sardine eating experience improved in quality hundredfold. However, I can't really imagine many people following my example; in fact I have not repeated the experience since.
How to fillet sardines
If you can get fresh whole sardines, it isn’t difficult at all to fillet them. They must be intact, no tears in the belly or on the skin. Rinse them in cold water to gently rub the scales off, then lop off the head and the tail, make an incision along the length of the belly and scrape out the guts. Then pull the main bone out with your fingers, opening the fillets butterfly-fashion.
How to best cook sardines
Grilled sardines sound like the ticket but it's difficult to avoid overcooking them – that moment between cooked through but still succulent and dry and haggard seems to last a split second. Sardinian style oven baked, with lemon and herbs, sandwiched together in pairs is a much better method.