We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

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

4 to 6 dressed sand dabs, patted dry

— Black pepper in a mill

— All-purpose flour, in a shaker (see Note below)

3 to 4 tablespoons butter, as needed

1 lime, halved

— Generous handful of small-leaf arugula or watercress

Put the shallot and garlic into a small bowl, add a few generous pinches of salt and the ground serrano or chipotle and stir in the lime juice. Set aside for about 15 or 20minutes, stir in the olive oil, taste and correct for salt and acid balance.

Meanwhile, cut the zucchini into thin julienne; this is best accomplished on a mandoline. Set aside.

Set a sheet of wax paper on a clean work surface and set the sand dabs on top. Season all over with salt and pepper and then sprinkle with flour, covering both sides of the fish.

Put half the butter into a heavy saute pan set over medium heat and when it is foamy, add the zucchini and saute, tossing several times, until just tender, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and several very generous turns of black pepper. Transfer to a bowl and cover to keep warm.

Working quickly, increase the heat under the pan to high, add the remaining butter and when it is just beginning to brown, add the sand dabs. Cook for 2 ? minutes, turn and cook for 2 ? minutes more or a tad longer if particularly thick. During the last minute of cooking, carefully squeeze half the lime juice over the fish. Cut the remaining half lime into random wedges.

Divide the zucchini among individual warmed plates and set the arugula or watercress alongside. Add the sand dabs, drizzle lime citronette over everything, garnish with a wedge or two of lime and serve immediately.

Note: I find it helpful to keep a large salt shaker full of all-purpose flour in the cupboard next to my stove. I don't season it because sometimes I want it without salt and pepper, but you can add these ingredients if you like and skip the step of seasoning the flour with salt and pepper first.


You can, if you like, remove the backbones immediately after cooking. To do so, simply insert the tip of the knife under the top fillet, carefully lift it off and set it on the plate. Use your fingers to gently grab the backbone and pull it off; set the bottom fillet alongside the top; continue until all the fish have been boned.

If you don't want zucchini, serve the sand dabs over wilted spinach. To do so, use lemon juice instead of lime juice in the vinaigrette and finish the fish with lemon juice, too. Allow a very generous handful of spinach for each serving, rinse it well but do not shake off all the water, and put the damp spinach into a wok. Just before the fish is ready, set the wok over high heat and cook, tossing all the while, until the spinach is wilted, about 90 seconds. Divide it between two plates and set the boned fillets on top. Omit the arugula or watercress. Finish with the vinaigrette and garnish with a small lemon wedge.

To serve with a simple browned butter sauce, omit the citronette. After the fish is cooked, transfer it to a work surface and return the pan to the heat. Swirl about 2 tablespoons of butter in the pan until it is just melted, squeeze in some lemon juice and add, if you like, a couple of teaspoons of brined green peppercorns or capers. Heat through and pour over the fish after boning.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

Email Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

Show Comment