Unusually, we have a complete recipe for sardines: a Fish Salad with vermouth, fennel, cockles & giant croutons.
Sardines can tend to be a little crumbly or even mushy, hence their traditional pairing with crisp toast. We like this dish as the croutons add an even more exaggerated crunch, while the salt-vinegar cockles, and aniseed flavours of the fennel and vermouth, balance out the fishes’ oiliness. The result is a very savoury mix, but still with the seaside tang of fish and shellfish
Ingredients (for two starters)
3 or 4 fresh Cornish sardines. These come from good sustainable stocks
Walnut of butter
1 tsp light olive oil
150-200ml sunflower oil
2 slices white or wholemeal bread
2 shot glasses of dry vermouth
2 heads of fennel
1 tbsp of pickled cockles (or capers if you prefer)
large bunch watercress or lettuce
1 dessert spoon of old leftover onion knocking about the fridge (optional)
* Set the grill on to heat
* Gut and trim the sardines if the fishmonger hasn’t already done it (but fishmongers usually do whatever you ask, these days). Cut the heads off if you don’t like things staring accusingly up at you. Rub them with lemon juice and a few drops of olive oil
* Chop the onion into tiny dice
* Drain the cockles or capers
* Cut the top and bottom off the lemon. Keep these for juice. Leave the peel on and slice the middle section as thinly as you can, into almost-translucent circles
* Take the fennel, slice off the base and trim off the green fronds. Set any green fronds aside for a garnish later on. Slice the white parts into rings, removing any thick bits of core
* Cut the crusts off the bread and cut each slice into about six pieces. Have a two pieces of kitchen paper ready to drain the hot croutons upon
1. Heat the butter and olive oil in a shallow pan. When it sizzles, throw in the fennel and onion dice, if you have them, and stir to coat all the pieces in butter and oil. Turn the heat down to low.
2. Place the sardines under the hot grill for five minutes, turning once halfway through. While these are grilling you may toy with the fennel, pushing it around and monitoring it for goldenness, and make the croutons (step 3).
3. Heat the sunflower oil in your smallest saucepan (it must be at least 2cm deep). After a few minutes, drop in a fragment of crust – if it turns yellow and sinks, the oil is too cool. If it sizzles and bubbles on the surface, carefully drop in the bread pieces. Watch them closely; croutons burn in an instant. When they are the perfect shade of golden-brown, turn off the heat and instantly remove the croutons to drain.
4. Place the sardines carefully in the fennel pan, drape a few lemon slices on the pan to wilt (this looks very pretty) and turn up the heat until the butter/oil begins to spit. Pour in the vermouth. There should be an almighty hissing – wonderful! Stir the fennel and fish gently around. Scrape up any caramelised bits at the bottom of the pan. Drape a few lemon slices on the pan, to make them wilt a little (this looks very pretty). Calm things down with a little more oil if the pan looks dry, and gently mix things together, just for a minute or so. In the last few seconds, scatter on the cockles (just so they are not stone-cold)
Finishing The Dish
Place the watercress on your plates or serving dish. Use a big flat spatula or similar to carefully lift your fish and fennel out of the pan and place them on the leaves. Decorate with lemon slices and the giant croutons. NB this dish doesn’t usually require additional salt, so if you’re tempted to scatter rock salt – which does look pretty – taste-test it first.