Part One of an extended homage to Sardines, the most humble, overlooked and economical of fish. Sardines are great! You can buy a bag load that will feed an army for a few quid, they’re delicious, and full of healthy goodness (allegedly) . They don’t have the glamour or as many foody endorsements of other more flamboyant species (I’m looking at you Sea Bass), and they’re small and a bit fiddly to prepare. But, they’re one of the most sustainable fish you can buy, and they’re supremely versatile.
Like most people of my age, my first encounter with sardines came via the little rectangular tins of packed fillets in rich tomato sauce. A Saturday tea would often be these spread on toast and heated under the grill. It’s still a default lazy tea, usually in the winter, especially if it’s raining. Since can openers have become redundant, there isn’t the same level of jeopardy involved in getting them out of a jaggedy, razor edged tin. As with so much of life these days, the frisson of 70s childhood danger has been erased.
I don’t think I encountered the ‘real’ thing until my 20s, on holiday in France, when we bought a bag load from the market and barbecued them. I remember that we were late to the market in Trets and took the last of fish seller’s stock and he was entranced by P’s fluency. And the fish were so good on the barbecue – stuffed with fennel fronds, drizzled with oil. They hardly take any time to cook, and you can be thoroughly revolting, getting your fingers all oily and charred as you pick off all the meat. They’re especially good with an ever so slightly warm potato salad, which I make with dill. Every year I start the summer with this barbeque, it’s almost a ritual, a remembrance of a holiday in Provence – an offering to Hegemone with high hopes for many outdoor meals and balmy evenings.
Below is my one of my favourite Sicilian ways of cooking them – turning them into a little snack that you can serve as a fancy antipasto; one or two mouthfuls at most, of sweet, nutty, herby, citrusy oiliness, to get your tastebuds going for the main event. The recipe varies across Sicily, I’ll be sticking to the Palermo way – because that’s the one taught to me, but other versions are available. In Catania, they’re presoaked in vinegar, cheese replaces the nuts and currants and then they’re cooked flat, having been dipped in egg and breadcrumbs before cooking. Although it might seem a bit of a faff to fillet and stuff all these sardines, I promise you that it’s worth it. Put something captivating on the radio, and the time will fly by. The stuffing freezes well, so anything you don’t use, you can store for next time.
Rachel Roddy tells the story behind their name in Two Kitchens – they’re meant to resemble little fig eating songbirds (I shan’t paraphrase further – I don’t want to spoil the original). It’s another example of the romance of food in Sicily – just because the ingredients are ordinary and humble, there is no reason that the dish should not rise above its origins, with an accompanying flourish of poetry.
Sarde a beccafico
Ingredients (for 4)
16-20 cleaned and filleted sardines (depending on the size of the appetites of the 4)
1 clove garlic (crushed)
Zest and Juice from one lemon
Juice of half an orange
2 anchovies (the ones in oil that come in little mini sardine tins)
25g Pine nuts
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4 generous tablespoons of olive oil
16-20 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
Clean and fillet your sardines.
They tend not to have been cleaned when you buy them (especially if they’re frozen). So you have to grit your teeth and deal with the innards I’m afraid. I do the whole thing under a cold running tap, which makes it more clinical and less gorey. Scrape any scales off, snip off the fins (but not the tail). Make a snip through the spine behind the gills, and then pull the head away, this should bring all the guts too, so it’s quicker and cleaner than cutting open the belly and scooping everything out.
With the head gone, make an incision along the underside all the way to the tail, then flatten the sardine, by placing it opened out, on a chopping board and running your thumb along its spine. Then you can flip it over and and slide a small sharp knife along all the ribs and lift them and the backbone out in one. Don’t worry about any small bones left , these will soften in the cooking. Trim the edges but leave the tail. You should have your first fillet. Once you’ve cleaned all the fish, cover them and put them in the fridge til you’re ready to stuff and cook them. (There are loads of video tutorials on YouTube on fish cleaning, if you feel in need of moral support).
For the stuffing, start by boiling the kettle and then soaking your raisins in hot water for ten minutes until they’ve plumped up, then drain and give them a light squeeze. Meanwhile you can be lightly toasting your pine nuts in a dry frying pan. Set them to one side.
Then add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the frying pan, add your anchovies and dissolve them in the warming oil, then add the breadcrumbs and fry until golden. Half way through, add the crushed garlic. Once the crumbs are cooked, put them in a bowl with the zest of the lemon, the pine nuts and the drained currants. Add your salt and pepper, and finally your chopped parsley. Mix everything together, and leave to cool.
When you’re ready, take each fillet, put it skin side down and put a small spoonful of the stuffing in a line along the fish, Then roll the fish up toward its tail and secure it with a cocktail stick. You’ll get some stuffing spillage, but don’t worry about that. Slide a bay leaf onto the stick.
Line them up in your backing tray, with the tails in the air, looking supposedly like little beaks (the becca in the beccafico) sprinkle the lemon and orange juices over the lot and cook in your hot oven (around 180 degrees C) for ten minutes. Then allow to cool before serving, which makes them an excellent thing for making in advance.
Sardines (Part 2) will be coming soon…