Sardines are a controversial food divider. Generally people either really love them, or really don’t. I’m not 100% sure but I suspect there might be some correlation to those who have fed a cat before, and those who perhaps have not. So I expect that probably around half of you will not actually even bother reading this post. But for the other half, I hope this inspires you to consider looking out for fresh sardines next time you’re at your fish monger.
Ever since I was little, I have loved cracking open a tin of sardines, splitting each fillet open with a fork to carefully remove the spine, then squishing them into hot buttered toast. Breakfast is served. Might seem a little strange for a young Australian child to love sardines, however I put it down to my Eastern European blood from my Dad’s side. (Thanks Roysee!)
It’s true that the majority of the sardine catch in Australia is processed for canning and cat food (lucky cats!) I can understand why they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but being a dodger of all things bland, I embrace the strong flavour. While tinned sardines are great and I still always have a few tins in my pantry, ever since my lovely foodie friend Al suggested we cook baked sardines for a Spanish-themed dinner party we hosted for our friends (and I absolutely LOVED the dish), I’ve been looking for them at the fish markets. Unfortunately they are not a staple catch, and only available when the sea weather’s calm and clear so it’s actually quite rare that I spy them.
Apart from loving the taste, there are a few other noteworthy reasons why I always look for fresh sardines at the fish markets.
- They’re sustainable. (or at least a ‘better choice’ than a lot of seafood) Honestly I find the whole sustainable seafood debate extremely confusing as there are so many factors: (quotas and methods and by-catch oh my!) and therefore I have struggled to find a reliable source to base my sea food purchasing decisions on. However, after learning that sardines are not over-fished and are a robust, resilient species which are able to replenish populations quickly, I put them on ‘my’ sustainable list and like to eat them a couple of times a month or so. Also, small fish such as anchovies, sardines, white bait and prawns are generally seen to be more sustainable than the larger, more predatory species.
- They’re cheap! I bought a dozen beautiful fresh fillets from my fish monger last weekend for the grand total of $4.20.
- They’re soooooo good for you. Apart from having very low levels of mercury and other toxins that accumulate in longer-living, bigger fish (sardines are very low on the food chain and therefore eaten by a lot of other bigger fish), they are high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and potassium. This makes them great for your heart, bones, and cells.
This recipe is loosely based on one I saw on a blog I follow: Not Quite Nigella, and inspired by my good friend, Al. xx
Serves 1 (hungry) person who loves sardines for a meal on its own, or great as a side-dish for a little dinner party.
- 10-12 fresh sardine fillets
- 3-4 Tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil (plus a little extra for drizzling)
- ⅓ cup flour (I used gluten free but any flour will do)
- 1 tsp of any spice mix you like (I used Herbies paella spice mix)
- pinch chilli flakes
- 3 Asian (red) shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (you could use any mild onion like red (Spanish) onion or green shallots)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
- 1 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
- ½ Tbsp dried cranberries (or currents, etc – can omit if you don’t want a little sweetness)
- 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (again can omit if you’re avoiding sugar)
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 1Tbsp fresh chopped parsley
- Put on your apron and butterfly the sardines* (I learnt how here, but if you’re squirmish, you can ask your fish monger to gut & butterfly them for you)
- Heat oil in a fry pan over medium heat
- Combine flour, spice mix and chilli flakes in a medium bowl
- Once oil has heated up, cook the onion for a couple of minutes then add the garlic
- Drop each butterflied fillet into the flour mix and coat well on both sides
- Add the floured sardines into the pan and carefully move them round / turn them over until cooked through (they won’t take long – 5-10 mins and they will naturally split in half as they cook. I like to be quite delicate with them so they more-or-less remain intact)
- Add the currents, pine nuts and capers to the pan and stir to combine
- Add the balsamic and lemon juice and remove from the heat
- Right before serving, sprinkle with fresh parsley and a little drizzle of oil
*If you have a dog or a cat – save the heads and guts for their next (gourmet) meal.