Tuesday, July 6, 2010
SUMMER OF SARDINES
One of summer's pleasures in Spain is eating fresh sardines, roasted on a fire in the salt air at the seaside. The sardines are speared on skewers stuck into the sand in front of the flames and grilled until crackly. The aroma is irresistible, tantalizing. You pick them up in your fingers and eat the flesh off the bones. Accompanied by icy, cold beer and chunks of fresh bread to absorb the drips, sardines make a memorable meal, to be followed by a plunge in the sea and a siesta on the warm sand.
Spanish humorist and commentator on life, Julio Camba, once wrote that with sardines, you should never eat fewer than a dozen, "but watch how you eat them, where you eat them and with whom you eat them." Sardines, he added, are not to be consumed at home with the virtuous wife, but out with a shameless hussy not afraid to get her fingers greasy. "People once united in eating sardines together, will never be able to mutually respect each other again, so, when you, dear reader, wish to organize a sardine fest, choose well your accomplices."
Sardines, plentiful both in the south (Mediterranean) and the north (Atlantic and Bay of Biscay), are of the blue fish family, related to herring. They are a greenish-blue touched with gold, with a silvery belly. Sardines never get much bigger than 8 inches (20cm), though smaller ones are also appreciated. (La mujer y la sardina, cuanto mas chica, mas fina—Women and sardines, the smaller the better.)
Sardines grilled on the beach in Málaga are called espetones, for the split-cane skewers; in Cádiz, they're sardinadas; in Granada, moraga; in Galicia, where the fire might be fueled with wild gorse, aspetu. You can grill them on the terrace at home on an ordinary charcoal grill. A hinged double grill is useful for grilling sardines. Instead of turning each sardine, you flip the whole grill over. The sardines can also be grilled on a plancha, a flat grill pan or griddle.
Sardines to be grilled must be absolutely fresh. Leave them whole, ungutted and unscaled. Sprinkle them with salt about 30 minutes before cooking. For added flavor, place branches or twigs of fresh herbs such as bay, thyme, rosemary or fennel on the coals. When coals are hot, brush the grill with oil and preheat it before placing sardines on it. Brush them with olive oil. Cook on both sides. Serve hot off the grill.
If cooking on a plancha, drizzle the sardines with olive oil and brush the plancha lightly with oil. Sprinkle coarse salt on the griddle and preheat it. Lay the sardines on the hot plancha. Turn them once to brown both sides. They’re done when browned—3 to 4 minutes per side.
To eat the sardines, flake off any loose scales, then, holding the sardine at both ends, eat the flesh off one side, turn and eat the other side, discarding the head, spine and viscera. Allow at least a dozen per person. Instead of plates, use slabs of bread or, as in Galicia, corn bread or cachelos, potatoes boiled in their skins, on which to serve the sardines.
If you have leftovers, strip off skin and discard bones. Marinate the flesh in a good vinaigrette and serve as an hors d'oeuvre with sliced hard-cooked egg and thinly sliced onion.
For this recipe, you have to fillet the sardines. Really fresh sardines are easier to fillet if you first soak them in salted ice water for 60 minutes. Working on several thicknesses of newspaper, slide off the scales from the tail to the head. Cut off the heads and remove the guts. Grasp the top of the spine between thumb and forefinger. With the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, loosen the flesh around the spine and draw it down, “unzipping” the fillets as you go. Use kitchen scissors to cut away the spine, leaving the two fillets attached on the dorsal side and at the tail.
16 to 18 fresh sardines (about 1 ½ pounds)
¾ cup fine fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped serrano ham (½ ounce)
1 tablespoon minced scallion
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
½ teaspoon minced fresh fennel leaves
1 tablespoon chopped currants or raisins
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water
¾ cup flour
olive oil for frying (about ½ cup)
Remove heads and guts from sardines. Butterfly them and remove spines, leaving two fillets attached along the dorsal fin and at the tail . Rinse and pat them dry.
Combine the breadcrumbs, ham, scallion, parsley, fennel and currants in a bowl. Stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of the beaten eggs to the breadcrumb mixture.
Spread ½ cup flour in a shallow pan. Place remaining beaten egg in a shallow bowl.
Working with one sardine at a time, spread it open on work surface. Use about 1 ½ teaspoons stuffing mixture. Press it firmly on one side of the sardine. Fold the other half over and press to seal. Place the sardines as stuffed in the pan of flour.
When all sardines have been stuffed, sprinkle them with remaining ¼ cup of flour. Roll them gently to coat them on all sides. Dip the sardines into beaten egg, taking care to coat the open side. Return to the pan of flour. Roll them gently to coat with flour.
Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of skillet to a depth of ¼ inch. Fry the sardines in batches, turning them to brown on all sides, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to drain on paper towels. Serve hot.