26 Mar

Early Wednesday, I stepped outside my door. Instead of bone-chilling temperatures and the insipid dampness of slow melting snow, I found myself in a bright, sunny morning, the neighborhood daffodils and crocuses in full bloom, the Sandhill cranes flying overhead, announcing their early return from their winters’ stay in Florida.

Spring fever raging, we took the day off, hopped in the car and headed two hours south to Madison for a visit to our favorite clothing store, a stroll through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and dinner at my favorite Madison restaurant – Sardine.

Sardine is not a Greek restaurant, but its eponymous appetizer and even its location had me thinking of Andonis, one of several fish tavernas lining the harbor of Perdika Beach on the southwest coast of Aegina.

Andonis, Perdika Beach, Aegina. Photo:

In both places, I can sit outside, deeply breathing in the early evening air.  At Andonis, I breathe in the sea, and watch the fishing boats bobbing in the harbor. I am glad for the arbor shading me from the intense heat of the setting sun.  At Sardine, I breathe in the fresh water of Lake Monona, one of two lakes hugging the Madison Isthmus.  I watch as the streetlights on the opposite shore turn on one by one, illuminating the quickly darkening waves.  And I am glad that I remembered to bring my sweater, to guard against the breeze that’s sending goose bumps up and down my arms.

And at both places, I order sardines: plump, seared over the outdoor grill (Andonis) or pan roasted over the intense flame of the indusrial stove (Sardine); marinated in olive oil, lemon and garlic; served with a side order of Tzadtziki (Andonis) or with a variation on the classic Greek white beans simmered in tomatoes and chile (Sardine).

The sardines go really well with a tumbler of retsina (Andonis) or a glass of Honore Vera Monastrell (Sardine).  Wine experts would surely tell me that this hearty wine doesn’t pair well with the fish, but I am glad for its warmth as I sit with my sweater draped over my shoulders, enjoying the breeze coming in off the lake, eating my sardines, enjoying my company, and thinking of plates of plump sardines gone by, and of plates of plump sardines yet to come.

Pan-seared Sardines (Sardeles)

Before you start, you may want to check out this video by GoodFishBook.  It’s a step-by-step guide for cleaning and preparing fresh sardines:

  • Fresh whole sardines (up to one pound) scaled and cleaned, heads and tails removed
  • 2 – 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • juice squeezed from one lemon
  • 5-6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • one red onion, thinly sliced
  • fresh parsley, chopped
  • sea salt
  • lemon wedges for garnish

Brush sardines with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  When pan is hot, add sardines and sauté, about 2 minutes on each side.  Add garlic, onions, olive oil and lemon, and sauté another two or three minutes until fish is cooked.  Add parsley and stir.  Serve with lemon wedges.

Tzadtziki (Yogurt Garlic Sauce)

  • 1.5 cups whole milk plain yogurt
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill or mint (or more to taste)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (This is the American version. In Greece, Tzadtziki is made with so much garlic, it bites back.  When I make it at home, I use at least four big cloves of garlic, so the Tzadtziki tastes “hot” with the stuff!).
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Line a small colander with cheese cloth (or coffee filters, or even two layers of paper towels if you’re in a pinch!) Place the yogurt in the colander and let it strain over a bowl or in the kitchen sink for at least one hour (two is better).

Peel a cucumber, slice it in half length-wise, and scoop out the seeds using a spoon.  Grate the cucumber, sprinkle with salt, and place in a small colander to drain for at least a half hour.  After it has drained, use your hands to squeeze as much remaining liquid from the cucumber as possible.  Pat dry with paper or cloth towel.

Combine the cucumber and yogurt in a bowl.  Add the lemon juice, dill or mint, garlic, and pinch of salt.  Stir well.


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