Another week’s offering from Siren SeaSA
As soon as I got them home, I weighed them — a little over two-pounds — and dumped them in the sink. How beautiful is that? I just wanted to arrange them in various patterns, their silvery scales against the porcelain sink. Oh yes, but I had work to do.
Use a sharp knife to cut off the heads just past where their gills are. Cut a slit down their bellies almost to the tail (you can also simply lay them flat on one side and cut off a thin edge down the length of their belly-side), open them up, and (I like to do this part under running water) sweep out their guts with your finger.
You can, of course, ask the fishmonger to do the beheading and gutting for you and leave the guts out of your kitchen. Sardine guts are, however, about as innocuous as fish guts get, so if you know how to clean fish or want to give it a try, this is a good place to start.
Off with their heads! I have beheaded many a sand dab, so this is nothing new, except sardines are a little bigger and definitely rounder and thicker. Headless and gutless, they’re still pretty, but not as magical… even though one can still envision them coursing through the water in bright and lithe schools, bending and dodging this way and that; or the contrived version of the aquarium exhibits featuring hundreds of sardines swimming in a brightly lighted glass cylinder, swimming against an artificial current for your pleasure.
OK, but what we’re dealing with here are quite dead fish that need to be dealt with now.
Grilling is the easy way out, and it’s a beautiful day to do that, but of course, I try to not do easy, but to challenge myself. As Tina Turner once said in her introduction to Proud Mary (and I paraphrase); “Sometimes I like to sing it nice and easy, sometimes nice and rough…” So today I’ll tackle the Home-Cured Sardines.
They start out nice and easy:
Rinse the fish clean and pat them dry.
Lay the fish in a baking pan or similar vessel . Sprinkle them with about an ounce of sea salt (3T); turn them over and sprinkle with another ounce of salt. There’s no need to open the fish up and salt the flesh directly on the inside. They will cure nicely through the skin, and this method will help them from becoming too salty in the end.
Cover the pan with a layer (or two or even three) of plastic wrap and tuck it away in the fridge for two days.
Nice and easy. But then it’s time to finish these little fishes:
After two days (in the realm of 36 to 48 hours), uncover the pan and rinse off all the sardines under cool running water. Open up a sardine and lift out the spine. The other bones should lift right out with the spine.
Maybe that works for the writer, who has done it many times, but for this first time sardinemonger… let’s just say it’s nice and rough. The spine and the other bones don’t exactly “lift right out,” That fish has been in the fridge for a couple days and it’s stiff and cold. I found if I splay it open and carefully work the spine from the top with my fingers, I can maneuver it out.
Then —this part is really amazing—use your fingers to work the two filets (one on each side of the fish) away from the skin. In most cases, the filets quite easily pull away from the skin. Some bits of skin may remain on the fish, but they are perfectly edible and you don’t need to worry about them.
Again… nice and rough. After destroying a couple of fish (hey, its all edible) I learned to work the fillets out under swiftly running water, not quite a “really amazing” act. So… there I have my Home-Cured Sardines. I ate one. Good. Salty, but just right.
Curing softens the flavor of sardines and makes the texture of the fish more dense and a bit silky. Use them as you would any smoked or cured fish—on crostini, in salads or on bagels with cream cheese. These sardines are particularly lovely topped with a mixture of grated hardcooked egg, capers and a squirt of lemon.
So I could eat them as they are, but again, I choose to go another step; Marinating.
MARINATED HOME-COOKED SARDINES
This is but one way to use home-cured sardines. Feel free to play around with this marinade, adding aromatics and herbs as you see fit. Marinated home-cured sardines are delicious served with a warm potato salad, on a mash of root vegetables or—my favorite—on top of a bed of lacinato kale gently cooked until quite soft. Leftovers—if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing— are delicious alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Cook sliced red onions slowly in olive oil, until they are soft. Add garlic and chili flakes and cook a little longer. Off heat, add a vinegar sugar mixture, stir and pour the still warm mixture over sardines. Let sit for at least 30 minutes and up to two days. For overnight marinating, cover and chill, but bring to room temperature before serving.
I first served mine on top of a tomato over a leafy green salad. In subsequent servings, on crackers and with eggs, I learned the marinated sardines were best chopped. This is good stuff, but comes with a warning: WARNING: two-pounds of sardines, even after beheading, skinning and boning, makes a hell-of-a-lot of marinated sardines. Next batch, I’ll grill four for dinner and cure and marinate two.
So now we have another example of the “fish of the week” club providing me with something I would not have bought on my own. And guess what? I learned something new.
Marinated Home-Cured sardines
6 home-cured sardines (12 filets)
3 ounces olive oil, divided
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
pinch of red chile flakes (optional)
1/4 cup agrodulce (or white wine vinegar plus 1 teaspoon sugar, stirred to dissolve)
Lay sardine filets in a casserole dish or wide, shallow bowl.
Warm one ounce of the olive oil over medium heat in a large frying pan. Add red onion and cook, stirring, until onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and chile flakes and cook, stirring, until the garlic is also soft, about another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and agrodulce or vinegar.
Pour still-warm mixture over sardines. Let sit at least 30 minutes and up to two days. For overnight marinating, cover and chill, but bring to room temperature before serving.