The sand dab is one of California's better-kept seafood secrets. The catch is small, not because of a shortage of fish, but because sand dabs traditionally have been available only in restaurants. Sand dabs inhabit the Pacific from Alaska to Central America, but the commercial fishing is restricted to the Pacific coast.
Sand dabs have a delicate, sweet flavor unmatched by any other Pacific flatfish. They are generally sold whole. These fish are pan-dressed (headed and gutted), then pan-fried or grilled with the bone in so the meat stays moist and juicy.
Scales Need Not Be Removed
Pan-dressing can be used to clean other small flatfish such as petrale sole and starry flounder. Starry flounder should be scaled. Sand dabs and petrale sole have fine scales, which need not be removed.
To pan-dress a sand dab, cut diagonally through the fish body from behind the head to the vent (the anal opening). Discard the head and the attached viscera. Cut off the fins that run the length of the belly and along the top of the fish, making sure to remove a little of the flesh. This step is important because it allows the fillets to come off easily after the fish is cooked. Scrape out any blood remaining in the body cavity with the tip of a paring knife. Then wash the fish thoroughly.
PAN-FRIED SAND DABS
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
4 pounds pan-dressed sand dabs
1 cup flour
1 cup bread crumbs or cornmeal
2 to 3 tablespoons oil or clarified butter
Mix eggs and milk together in bowl. Dredge each fish in flour, then dip into egg-milk mixture and cover with bread crumbs. Arrange on sheet of wax paper next to stove.
Heat oil in large skillet. Fry fish, turning once to brown both sides. Serve immediately, accompanied with lemon wedges and tartar sauce, if desired. Fillets should peel off bone easily. Makes 4 servings.