It is time for a refresher course in the Pacific sand dab, that sweet little flatfish that all but disappeared four or five years ago.
But there's good news. The sand dab is back. Fisherman and fishmonger David Legro says he'll have them weekly at the three farmers markets he attends (Healdsburg and Santa Rosa Original on Saturdays, Sebastopol on Sundays). I snagged eight sand dabs, dressed and pan-ready, from him at the last Sebastopol farmers market of June.
The sand dab's natural territory stretches from the tip of Baja California to the Bering Sea, yet, traditionally, it has been considered a San Francisco delicacy, generally found in restaurants, not home kitchens. It is related to other popular flat fish — including Dover, English, petrale and rex sole — but it is the smallest of them all.
Americans, typically, are afraid of fish bones and so the sand dab is often overlooked. Some restaurants keep it off their menus for this reason, even though it is really easy to bone it.
Despite its bones, the sand dab is gaining in popularity these days and is enjoyed in Oregon and Washington as well as in the Bay Area. Still, a lot of people, including fishermen, look down on the dab.
"You'll never sell sand dabs. No one wants them," a fellow fisherman told Dave Legro recently in Moss Landing, where the salmon catch was good for several weeks. He laughed at the idea of sand dabs fetching $9.95 a pound or more.
It's a shame, as the fish is abundant, easy to cook and delicious. The ones that Legro sells have had their dorsal and ventral fins removed, which leaves just the backbone and two small stomach bones, all of which are easy to remove after cooking.
When I last wrote about sand dabs — it's been nearly a decade — the price was hovering around $3.99 a pound for undressed fish, which was how they were sold, with just their heads removed. Now, you'll pay about $14.99, a price that reflects not only the amount wasted when the fish is fully dressed, but also new regulations on fishing. They are considered a good choice, environmentally.
If you want to get sand dabs from a vendor other than Dave Legro, ask at the fish counter. Even if a market doesn't carry them, they can often be ordered for you.
To grill sand dabs, you don't need a recipe. Simply brush the fish all over with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and grill them over a very hot fire for about 2 minutes per side. Serve neat, with lemon wedges or with a tangy sauce, such as Italian salsa verde, chimichurri or chermoula.
Sand dabs are best cooked hot and fast. I've experimented with various techniques but always come back to pan-frying, which gives perfect results.
Pan-fried Sand Dabs with Zucchini and Lime Citronette, with Variations
Makes 2 servings, easily doubled
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
— Kosher salt
? teaspoon ground smoked serrano or ground chipotle (chipotle powder)
— Juice of 1 lime
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths