To the best of my knowledge, I have never eaten tinned sardines. I am not entirely sure what youíre supposed to do with them. Kathleen, I know, used to drain away the oil and sprinkle lemon juice and cracked pepper on the fish - enviable simplicity displaced by my ambitions. Iíve read that Balzac liked to spread sardines on toast. For a spell in college, I was crazy about smoked oysters, but there came a day when all I could taste was smoke. On the whole, Iím not drawn to canned goods.
So this is about fresh sardines. The flavor is not so much strong as savory, along the lines of tuna but more marine. (Although Iíve learned to like fresh tuna, I still donít think it tastes very much like fish.) Fresh sardines are much larger than the ones in the tin, about seven inches long and an inch and a quarter deep. When theyíre on offer at Agata & Valentina, theyíre billed as ĎPortuguese,í and they run $6.95 per pound. While Iím only too happy to have the fishmonger scale and gut them, the heads stay on. Early in life, I was told that fish tastes better when itís cooked with the head on. Whether or not thatís perceptibly true, it certainly looks better.
The following method owes a great deal to the mess that I made last week when I cooked sardines for the first time in an age. My mistakes had nothing to do with the nature of sardines in particular; rather, it was one of those 'Moon Must Be In Klutz'1 nights. I chose the wrong pan, a huge and very heavy Le Creuset skillet that would pull the rings off burners before it would ever slide over them. I tried to cook eight sardines all at once, and to serve them directly from the pan. I neglected to turn the heat down once the fish had browned. Most of the sardines came to the table looking pretty beat up, and of course they were all more or less burnt. But instead of caterwauling, I thought through what Iíd done and acknowledged the obvious errors. A week later, clear steering led to delicious results.
Allot three sardines to each diner. Kathleen will eat only two, and if Iím not in the mood for four, the remaining fish can always be enjoyed ŗ la Balzac.
Season a cup of flour with salt, pepper, and whatever else strikes your fancy. Iím working on cumin and coriander. Normally the most assertive spice in the kitchen, cumin plays a good second fiddle to other strong flavors as long as itís used sparingly. Dump the flour in a dish or a pie pan. Line a cookie sheet loosely with foil and slip it into a thoroughly warm oven - 200o or less; but give it time to get good and warm. Get some rice going.
Heat a tablespoon each of butter and oil in a sautť pan over high heat until the foam subsides. Dredge three of the sardines in the seasoned flour and toss them into the pan. Turn down the heat a notch. Shake the panhandle from time to time to keep the fish from sticking. In no more than three minutes, turn the sardines over and cook them on the other side for the same time, again shaking the pan. Remove the fish to the cookie sheet, drain and wipe out the pan, and start all over again with the next three sardines. When all the fish have been fried and are resting in the warming oven, cook some light vegetables, and when theyíre ready, melt a knob of butter in the sautť pan with some chopped parsley and pour it over the fish. Serve dinner forth .
To eat a sardine, sever the spinal cord at the base of the skull with a nice firm chop. Slip the knife down along and atop the spinal cord toward the tail, lifting the upper fillet off the bone. Eat this while itís hot. Then remove the spinal cord with the ribs from atop the lower fillet, set it aside, and enjoy the rest of the fish. (August 2000)
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