I like to think of myself as a smart food shopper. I know how to sniff melons and gently squeeze avocados in the palm of my hand to judge ripeness. But last week, this useful tip from the Pacific Sardine Association in British Columbia sent me into new territory:

“When buying fresh sardines, conduct the “clock test” to assess the level of freshness:

  1. Grasp the sardine by the head
  2. Allow it to flop to one side
  3. Relate the angle of the fish to a clock. While a firm sardine with a 12 o’clock reading is ideal, an angle between 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock is acceptable.

I couldn’t wait to find some sardines to test. A girl can never have too many kitchen skills. And lately, fish is on my radar. I try to eat fish or seafood twice a week. Plus, there’s a buzz in sustainability circles that we can all help the planet by eating small whole fish. Think sardines, herring, anchovies – they’re heart-healthy fatty fish and inexpensive sources of omega-3s, which makes them good brain food.  I’ve stocked my pantry with canned little fishies, but had never cooked a fresh one.

I had the good luck to run into Guida Ponte, a chef at Verrill Farm in Concord, Mass., who comes from Portugal.  Our talk turned to sardines and she told me that small fresh ones are grilled throughout Portugal during the Sao Joao Festival, where they’re served with piri-piri sauce.

Next, the spice gods intervened. On a trip to a local spice shop to buy cardamom, I discovered a jar of piri-piri – ground bird’s-eye chili – the very same spice Guida had told me about a day before.  So, I brought it home and made the sauce.


Now I had to get my hands on some fresh sardines. Unfortunately, I learned that they’re seasonal, and the season around Boston ends in March. But the fishmonger urged me to try Spanish mackerel. He had about a dozen whole ones on ice, about 12 inches long, looking nice and fishy. They’re a little bigger than sardines, but he said they’d behave the same way on the grill. I pointed to one and asked him to clock test it. I figured he wouldn’t want to me grab one of his fish.  He got into it, and actually tested several. They were all good for 1 o’clock, so I bought one. It was just under a pound. The cost? $4.55.

He asked if I wanted him to clean if for me. I said sure.

I brought it home, nicely wrapped in white paper. Next, I got a fire going in the grill. As soon as I opened the package, the fish became “him.” A small fish with a head and a tail has a lot more personality than a fillet.

I rubbed the grill grate and the fish with olive oil, and put the fish on the magnificent flounder plate my brother gave me for Christmas one year.


Dinner was starting to seem very Field & Stream.

I heated the oven to 450°F, cut up a sweet potato and three fennel bulbs, tossed them in olive oil, and arranged them on a baking sheet, along with a bunch of asparagus that I also drizzled with olive oil.  I put the vegetables in the oven to roast.

When the coals were nice and hot, I put fishy on the fire, let him cook for about four minutes, turned him over using a big spatula, and let him go for another four. He smelled fabulous. I scooped him up, put him back on the platter, brought him into the house, and turned to my husband. “Head or tail?” I asked. He chose the head.


Here’s his plate. We ate our mackerel with piri-piri sauce, the roasted veggies, and a piece of whole-grain bread. Yum. He was the first little whole fish I’d ever grilled. He won’t be the last.

Piri-Piri Sauce

*My apologies to all the Portuguese cooks who will shake their heads at my version of this classic condiment. I chose to tinker with it, and advise you to play with the ingredients to come up with a version you love. The sauce is a great accompaniment for Spanish mackerel, or other fish with a delicate flavor. I like it on rice or vegetables, too.

  • ¼ teaspoon piri-piri
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed and diced
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake until blended. Add more piri-piri, vinegar, or olive oil as you wish, to come up with a nicely hot and flavorful combination.

- Georgia

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