The delight of cooking Old World dishes comes from the simplicity of its ingredients. Salt, olive oil, sardines. The nature of these three elements melds beautifully together.
But there are some things you will need to watch out for in order to make this dish sing. First, you’ll need to source your sardines — and that may not be as easy as we think. Most grocery stores no longer carry fresh sardines. Demand has waned over the years so you’ll have to visit your local fishmonger (something I highly recommend).
Be wary of frozen sardines. The high oil levels make them turn rancid even in a freezer, and the flesh becomes a mushy mess when thawed. Look for a shiny silver skin and a clean, fresh smell.
There’s a good chance the fish will be cleaned out so you simply need to bring them home and start your prep. I prefer to limit the ingredients. Simply salt both side of the sardine, drop into an oil filled frying pan, and once done add the smallest amount of lemon juice. This is the same way I like to cook smelt, although I sometimes flour them.
This recipe for stuffed, baked sardines comes from Rosetta Constantino’s book My Calabria.
1 dozen fresh sardines, about 1 1/2 lb
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp finely minced capers
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
2. Remove the backbone from each sardine by grasping the end of the backbone closer to the head and lifting it out. It usually pulls away cleanly from the flesh, although sometimes it clings. If it does cling, gently work the backbone free with your fingers, damaging the flesh as little as possible. Keep the tail intact. Lay the boneless sardines open “butterfly” style. Remove as many of the other fine white bones as you can. Season the fish on both sides with the salt.
3. For the filling: In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, capers, lemon zest, garlic, and olive oil. Mix with your fingers until well blended.
4. Using 1 tbsp of the olive oil, generously oil a baking dish large enough to hold six of the butterflied sardines. Arrange six of the sardines in the dish, skin side down.
5. Top with the filling, dividing it evenly and pressing it into an even layer. Top each sardine with another sardine, skin side up. Drizzle with remaining 1 tbsp olive oil.
6. Bake until the fish are sizzling hot and the flesh is white and flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.
The dish is best warm, not hot. Divide the sardines among serving plates, drizzle each portion with a little extra virgin olive oil, and accompany with lemon wedges. Serve with a Sicilian Insolia and feel the fresh sea breeze.