This is about as easy a recipe as you’re likely to come across. There’s nothing I think of as more Galician than simple grilled sardines. I’ve eaten these at more meals in Galician homes and restaurants than anything else outside of bread and wine. I think grilling first, any time I see good looking fresh sardines, which unfortunately, where I live in California, is not very often.
In Galicia, most people will just scale the sardines and not remove the innards before grilling. You can gut them if you want, but they become even more fragile that way, and difficult to not destroy on the grill. Once grilled, diners get the whole sardines, and either pull the filets off or pick up the whole sardines to eat around the skeleton and innards. It’s quite easy once you get used to it as a diner. And, when you think about how much time and mess you save from gutting the Sardines before cooking, you’ll want to get used to it.
The sardines really don’t need much more than salt, followed by a quick squeeze of lemon when serving – and often Galicians won’t even bother with the lemon. You can serve them alongside a simple green salad with some good bread. In Galicia, they are typically served alongside “cachelos” (boiled new potatoes with a little olive oil and sometimes pimentón).
Every single home I have been to in Galicia (except for apartments in the city) has a sort of stone grill outside, usually built as a sort of permanent structure. Sometimes it’s built into the house itself, and sometimes it stands alone, nearby. I have always seen them used with an actual wood fire, not charcoal. I have multiple great Galician memories of grilling sardines on a wood fire.
Grilling the Sardines is easy as long as you pay attention to a few details. First, make sure your grill grate is very clean. Second, make sure the Sardines are dry on the outside. I like to rinse them after scaling, then pat dry with paper towels, leaving in a single layer on a tray lined with towels or paper towels. The grill and grate need to be really hot when the sardines are placed on them. This is not the time for slower or indirect cooking. Finally, oil the grill grate using an oiled towel right before you place the sardines on the grill. I don’t like to oil the sardines, because on a very hot grill, the oil will cause flare ups and burn things in unpleasant ways. Do not touch the sardines once you put them down, other than once to turn them over, and once more to remove them from the grill.
Grilled Sardines (as a main course for 4 people)
2 - 3 lbs of whole sardines, scaled
Well oiled rag, for the grill
Fresh lemon to serve, if desired
1. Rinse the sardines with cold water. Pat them dry with paper towels, then leave them in a single layer on a towel-lined tray. When ready to place them on the grill, season with salt.
2. Use the rag to oil the grate on your hot grill, and immediately put down the sardines. Let them cook for about 3 minutes on one side, then very carefully flip each over to cook on the other side. Let cook another 3 minutes, then remove to a serving plate.
Serve immediately, allowing diners to squeeze lemon on their own.