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Fish have bones. Very big fish have large bones, easily avoided – fishmongers cleverly cut between them. Is that why people like tuna? Frankly I can think of no better reason to like this meaty, dry, fairly flavourless fish (I’ve never tried bluefin and very good of me too as it’s overfished and non-sustainable) which is only palatable when raw.
Little fish have little, brittle, annoying bones. Hard-core fish eaters pay no mind to them and eat bones and all, in whiting, sprats, whitebait, anchovies and sardines. Those are the type of people who will sensibly eat little brown shrimp shell-on and head-on while I sit there meticulously peeling each tiny shellfish until I’m left with a microscopic (admittedly delicious) morsel of flesh. Pernickety, that’s what I am. Never had it rough.
So I’m a bit fussy about sardines – even though I like the taste, like miniature mackerels, with crispy grilled skin – but the bones! The bones! Now the other day my fishmonger had some filleted* fresh sardines (two reasons to buy them – such delicate fishes that they go off as you look at them, hence most often frozen straight after caught) so I set to, got a pair of eyebrow tweezers which I use for deboning fish and managed to achieve almost bone-free flesh on the little rascals. That was effort, but the sardine eating experience improved in quality hundredfold.
To avoid overcooking them, which invariably happens when I grill sardines – that moment between cooked through but still succulent and dry and haggard seems to last a split second – I decided to bake them, Sardinian style as they should be.
*it isn’t difficult at all to fillet sardines, provided you have fresh fish. They must be intact, no tears in the belly or on the skin. Rinse them in cold water to gently rub the scales off, then lop off the head and the tail, make an incision along the length of the belly and scrape out the guts. Then pull the main bone out with your fingers, opening the fillets butterfly-fashion.
baked sardinesServings: 4-6 sardines per personTime: half an hour
- four to six filleted sardines per person
- three-four cloves of garlic, mashed with salt
- a handful of basil
- a handful of tarragon leaves
- one small green jalapeno chilli
- grated zest of one lemon plus juice
- several glugs of olive oil
Prepare the seasoning by first mashing the garlic with salt – chop it roughly, salt profusely and mash with the flat of a large knife blade, dragging it over the garlic this way and that. Chop finely the herbs and the chilli, grate lemon zest over the herbs, squeeze at least half a lemon over the mix and add enough olive oil to make it into a paste.
Lay half the amount of sardines skin down on a lightly oiled baking tray. Spread some seasoning paste over the flesh, then sandwich with the remaining sardines, flesh side down, like in the picture. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6 and bake the sardines for 13 minutes exactly (I’ve tested the timing thoroughly so if this doesn’t give a good result, your oven is dramatically different than mine. Presumably better).
It’s an excellent starter, and I’d say six per person for a main. And I managed them fine with scarcely any bones.