Last summer I found myself in Sicily -– what an adventure. Reminiscing, I walked over to my (ever expanding) bookcase and began flipping through a Sicilian cookbook — La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio (Recipes from Gangivecchio’s Sicilian Kitchen).
I had previously bookmarked a recipe for polpette di sarde (or sardine balls). Sardine balls may sound a bit strange, but they are actually a very traditional Sicilian dish. They have a nice combination of salty and sweet (from the raisins/currants), and a hint of spiciness from the tomato sauce (I added a bit of smoked hot paprika and a pinch of cayenne). I suspect this recipe may not have widespread appeal, but hopefully will entice a few fellow sardine lovers out there.
Inspired to recreate and relive some of my fond memories from last summer, I called around to a few local fish markets and finally tracked down some fresh, Mediterranean sardines. Sardines in hand, was eager to get going.
Step one, debone, skin, and dehead the fresh sardines, and then finely chop. Had the fishmonger scale and gut the fish, so all I had to do was debone and skin. I removed the backbone and most of the tiny bones. A few small bones escaped my watchful eye, but that’s okay (the bones are a good source of calcium).
Next, skin the sardines. How the heck do you skin a sardine?? They are oily little suckers and hard to get a hold of. I did my best and finely wound up with a little over one cup (was shooting for two cups). Change of plans, now an appetizer instead of a main course. In retrospect, I think you could leave the skin on (all part of the learning experience).
You can serve on some crusty bread (crisped up with a little olive oil in a hot skillet), crostini-style…
Or, over a bowl of spaghetti…
Or, on their own…
“Sardines are very popular in Sicily. Fresh Sardines have a distinct, delicious, bold flavor of the essence of the sea.” [from La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchilo]
Polpette di Sarde
makes (9) 1 1/4-inch balls
1 1/2 pounds cleaned (should give you ~ 1 1/4 cups), boned, deheaded fresh sardines, finely chopped
1/2 large egg
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon white raisins (or currants), soaked in warm water for 10 minutes, well drained and chopped
2 tablespoon chopped pine nuts
1 tablespoon freshly chopped mint leaves
2 teaspoons grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Simple tomato sauce (recipe below)
Combine the sardines, egg, breadcrumbs, olive oil, raisins, pine nuts, mint, and cheese in a large bowl. Mix well. Add a little hot water if the mixture isn’t moist enough. Season with salt and pepper. Shape into nine 1 1/4-inch balls. Let rest.
Heat the tomato sauce. Add the sardine balls. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring gently from time to time. Garnish with a little more fresh basil. Can serve hot or at room temperature (I prefer them hot).
Simple Tomato Sauce
1 (28-ounce) can of whole tomatoes (puree the tomatoes in a blender or food processor for a smoother sauce or keep chunky) 1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
Hot smoked paprika to taste (optional)
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
Sea salt and freshly black pepper to taste
Small bunch basil leaves, thinly sliced plus extra for garnish
Heat the oil in a wide deep skillet. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute, until soft but not browned. Pour in the tomatoes. Season with paprika (~1/2 teaspoon), cayenne, salt and pepper, and a little basil. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer.