Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Getting Reaquainted with Sand Dabs

I grew up eating sand dabs regularly. In our L.A. home, it was one of the few fish my dad enjoyed, relishing the sweet, delicate flesh and crispy skin. Typically, if we went out for dinner and it was on the menu, he'd order it and the server would bring the--usually--pan-fried fish to the table and de-bone them tableside. My mom may correct me on this, but I also remember her cooking them, already cleaned by the fishmonger.

Well, that was a long time ago and my parents and I have lived in San Diego for decades. In all that time my dad has still had cravings for sand dabs, but we've never seen them on a restaurant menu. That's understandable. These flatfish are small--perhaps five to eight inches--and rather fragile. I'm told that for years fishermen could get very little money for them so they've never been a high catch priority.

I've since learned that there are a few local restaurants--The Brigantine in Pt. Loma, King's Fish House in Mission Valley, and Bluewater Boathouse in Coronado--that have them on their menus, so that's something we'll check out.

But I finally found a place where I can buy them fresh--the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, which is held on Saturday mornings. There fisherman Giacamo Damato is currently selling them at his stall for $6.50 a pound. Now you'll need three or more to feed one person. For a little lunch feast with my parents I took home three pounds.

Fisherman Giacamo Damato with rockfish
Sand dabs caught by Damato on ice. As a flatfish, one side has the scales and both eyes.
Now I know it's so much easier to buy fish already cleaned, but these little guys are good to practice on. Damato explained to me that I needed to scale them, remove the head, then remove the stomach. Rinse, dry, and then dredge them in flour and salt. Then pan fry them. That's it.

And that's what I did. I took on the cleaning at my house, then packaged up my little school and took them over to my parents to cook up.

So, here's a step-by-step guide to what's involved:

1. Scaling: The only challenge here is that these little guys are a kind of slimy. So hold on to their heads and run a knife gently across and against the scales to remove them. They're only on one side, so they make it that much easier to do the job.

 2. Remove the head. Get just under that little fin behind the head and cut through. Yeah, yuck, but you can do it. (And don't throw the head away. Bury them and the guts in your garden to fertilize your plants.)


 3. Remove the stomach/guts. With the head removed, just press gently on the body near where you cut and it will pop out. Pull everything out and any blood you see. There won't be much.

4. The worst is now over. Get rid of the head and guts. Then rinse and gently pat dry the fish (not to mention the counter).

Now, get out a plate or dish and pour on all-purpose flour and seasonings--I used garlic salt here. This will be what you dredge the fish in.

5. Dip the fish into the flour mixture and coat them well on both sides.

6. Heat a pan and add your oil. I used olive oil, but canola or some other vegetable oil is just fine. When the oil is hot, add the fish--only enough so that there's no overcrowding. Give them about two or three minutes on each side.

7. Remove the fish and slice some lemons for everyone to squeeze over them. (Alternately, you can make a little lemon, butter, and caper sauce to pour over them.)

 8. Remember, the skeleton is still inside. No worries. The skin should be crisp and the flesh opaque white. It will easily pull apart, revealing the skeleton. Gently pull it out but still be careful to look for any errant bones left inside.

The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is open every Saturday morning at 8. While it technically stays open until 1 p.m., my experience has been that it's pretty much cleaned out by 9:30. You'll find it at 598 Harbor Lane--or, more practically, at the end of Pacific Highway where it goes into Seaport Village Parking. On the right you'll see a little road from the parking lot going toward the bay. The dock you walk into from the road is where the market is.

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