No better time than the present to commence a new year of cooking. Decided to welcome 2014 with a sardine recipe (I’ve spotted fresh sardines as of late.).
If you couldn’t tell, I’m especially fond of sardines. Sardines make me think about travel — fond memories of lazy days on the Greek Islands. And thinking about travel makes me happy. Ergo, sardines make me happy 🙂
Am constantly on the look out for fresh sardines. Canned ones, no problem. As for fresh sardines, they’re not always easy to find.
Every so often, I ask my local fish guy, “Any sardines today?” Predictably, he replies, albeit in a jovial tone, “Not today, but we’ll be getting some in.” After a while I gave up hope. But, just when I stopped looking, they appeared. A steal at $3.99 per pound — about six to eight sardines, depending on their size. I quickly snatched up a dozen.
I’ve sung the praises of sardines in previous posts — the gist…plentiful, sustainable, good for your health, and tasty. Am constantly thinking about new ways to prepare my favorite little fish. This version is based on a Sicilian classic, pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines). In Sicily, pasta con le sarde is prepared with wild fennel, which carpets the island and perfumes the air. I took those same flavors, omitted the pasta, and baked the sardines in the oven; the sardines are buried under a layer of homemade breadcrumbs mixed with garlic, fennel fronds, ground fennel seeds, and lemon zest.
This dish incorporates fennel in three different forms: fennel bulb thinly sliced, fennel fronds (the spiky little leaves), and dried ground fennel seeds, which collectively add a subtle anise-licorice flavor. Depending on where you live, you can forage for wild fennel (in the spring), which has a more pronounced anise flavor than its cultivated cousin. You can even harvest the yellow fennel pollen and sprinkle it on top.
One thing I’m not particularly fond of are sardine bones (especially in larger sardines). But no worries, you can debone the fish prior to baking (or have your fishmonger do so). It’s really quite easy (cleaned and deboned these myself). Once the sardines have been cleaned and gutted, use a pair of kitchen shears to snip the spine closest to the tail. Next, using a small knife, carefully run the knife under the spine to remove it in one piece.
Baked Sardines with Fennel and Breadcrumbs
1 to 1 1/4 pounds fresh whole sardines (about 6-8), scaled, gutted, and deboned
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing/drizzling
1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced (preferably with a mandoline)
2/3 cup homemade bread crumbs (recipe below)
3/4 cup loosely packed fresh fennel fronds
1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
3 garlic cloves, minced
zest of 1 lemon Lemon wedges, for serving
coarse sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the sliced fennel and saute until soft and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, fennel fronds, ground fennel, minced garlic, lemon zest, and a couple grinds of fresh black pepper. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and stir to combine.
Generously brush a baking dish (used a 14″ oval) with olive oil. Season the sardine cavities with salt. Place the sardines in the baking dish. Evenly distribute the breadcrumb mixture over the sardines. Place the sauteed fennel on top. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
Bake until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the sardines are cooked through, 18-20 minutes.
Finish with a drizzle of good quality olive oil. Serve with lemon wedges. Enjoy.
Homemade Whole-Wheat Breadcrumbs
3-4 slices of bread (whole wheat, multigrain) — enough to produce 2 cups bread crumbs when roughly chopped in the food processor
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh herbs (such as rosemary, oregano, thyme)
sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
In a large bowl, toss the breadcrumbs with olive oil, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. Place the breadcrumbs on a baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes until golden brown (rotate halfway through). Allow the breadcrumbs to cool. Place the breadcrumbs in the food processor and pulse a few times until the breadcrumbs are finely processed. Store in an airtight container.
I love to prepare a big batch of breadcrumbs and keep them in an airtight container in the fridge for future use.